Who Lost U.S. Foreign Policy?

Article excerpt

It has been a truism in the last two presidential elections that foreign policy does not win or lose presidential elections. In fact it barely registers with the electorate at all.

One need only recall the 1992 election debate between President Bush and candidate Clinton, when the moderator pleaded with the audience to come up with just one foreign policy question. The underwhelming response was a question about military pay. In the 1996 presidential election, vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp had thought so little about foreign policy that he to answer a predictable debate question about Haiti with a stumbling ad lib about Mexico.

Still, to say that foreign policy never mattered is plainly wrong. Would that include U.S. policy in Southeast Asia? Towards Soviet communist expansion? Regarding nuclear weapons? From World War II and all through the Cold War, foreign policy was a huge and extremely divisive issue. That foreign policy today has a much lower profile in the the public mind we owe to Ronald Reagan. It disappeared with the Cold War 10 years ago.

But at least here in the West where Soviet aggression was a merely a threat, not an oppressive reality, as it was in Central and Eastern Europe, 10 years is long enough to forget. Maybe that's not so bad. In the absence of an immediate threat, people ought to care first about their communities and their families. One may scratch one's head to read one day about the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations/Gallup poll which placed Mr. Clinton as the Number One foreign policy president since Roosevelt -ahead of presidents like Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan - and the next day find according to The Washington Post that American voters trust Republicans on foreign policy over Democrats by by 46 to 38 percent. But it is not entirely difficult to understand.

The world does not stand still, however, and signs are that foreign policy could play a larger role in the 2000 election. It certainly should, for the end of the Clinton era will leave the world with any number of simmering crises. Insofar as there is good news in any of this, it is for Republican candidates, who will be handed a plate of important issues. Vice President Al Gore, on the other hand, will be closely identified with the Clinton record, for better and for worse. He can also be expected to be called to account by his declared opponent Bill Bradley, who has been highly critical of Clinton policies on Russia, to name one.

A glance at the for-worse list is instructive. First, there is China, and the allegations that Chinese spies have been active in the U.S. nuclear laboratories, contained in the as-yet-classified Cox report. What was done to prevent these activities once uncovered was too little too late, and what's even more disturbing is that the knowledge did nothing to influence U.S. policy on China, which was stuck on engagement and trade. Add together nuclear spying, reckless disregard for national security, a cavalier attitude towards human-rights abuses and illegal Chinese contributions to the Democratic Party and you have an industrial-strength election issue. …