Clinton's Foreign Policy Revival after a Rough Start, the President Has Carved out a Record That Could Help Him This Fall

Article excerpt

CONVENTIONAL wisdom proclaims that Americans do not elect their leaders based on foreign policy considerations. Recent history suggests, however, that a major international entanglement in which the United States has a clear stake can be either a blessing or a bane for an incumbent president or his opponent. Given the surfeit of significant foreign policy issues that have coincided with the 1996 presidential campaign, both President Clinton and Bob Dole have a unique opportunity to defy convention.

At present, there are several important theaters where American interests are unmistakable: the success of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and attendant terrorism concerns; China's belligerence toward Taiwan and the US; the sustenance of Bosnia's fragile peace; Cuba's resolute defiance on outside interference; and Russia's dalliance with democracy.

There is also a smattering of back-burner, but no-less-serious issues, including the comings and goings of "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea; the sale of nuclear components and technology; and a burgeoning chemical-weapons trade. Errant actions in any one of these arenas could cause thorny problems for Mr. Clinton. With a caustic and sagacious opponent like Senator Dole, who has spoken on every foreign policy issue since 1960 when he was first elected to the House, Clinton must pay careful attention to the handling of foreign affairs. Current indicators suggest that Clinton has reached a plateau in foreign policy where, for the time being at least, he is beyond reproach. Early in his administration, however, no one would have predicted that Clinton would survive a series of policy debacles that threatened to render him a one-term president. Not long ago, inside-the-beltway comedians dubbed the president "Jimmy Clinton" because he had so many Carterites in key foreign policy positions and he seemed destined to repeat Carter's missteps. But all that has passed, and Clinton, once again, has reinvented himself - this time as a leader of respectable mettle and prudent policy. This evolution from visionless foreign policy idealist to astute internationalist has as much to do with personal maturation as it does with political circumstance. Among America's allies and adversaries Clinton's new-found status as a world leader is not only recognized, but very much appreciated. The president's early faux pas on Haiti and Somalia have been forgiven and all but forgotten, except by partisan Republicans and a few malcontents. Clinton's deft handling of such potentially precarious issues as China, the Middle East, and Bosnia has been applauded so far. With few exceptions, American foreign policy since World War II has reflected the worldview of each president. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought "containment" was too static a policy and sought to roll back communist gains. President Carter's beneficent view of the world fashioned foreign policy to human rights. The Bush administration sought to introduce Realpolitik into the foreign policy equation based on an internationalist view of the "new world order." Although his legacy is inchoate, the Clinton worldview has rapidly matured. …