Clinton Lacks Focus on Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

The world has caught up with Bill Clinton. If you ever believed that as president he could keep his attention on domestic affairs, that illusion is gone. Russia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia: The list of foreign crises is growing, and they will not go away.

For two reasons foreign policy is a difficult area for this president. One lies in himself, the other in the nature of international problems today.

"Somehow," The Economist wrote two weeks ago, "the fire is not in Mr. Clinton's belly when he speaks on foreign policy." Anyone who heard him on health care and on Somalia will understand. On health he was sure on his facts, confident, enthusiastic. On Somalia he seemed tentative, fuzzy, unconvincing.

Of course Somalia is a complicated problem. But so is the issue of national health care; there Clinton may not have the perfect solution, but he is so informed and committed that he communicates his conviction.

In our democracy, foreign policy must have public support to be successful. And the nature of the problems in the world makes it much harder to get that support now than in recent decades.

For 40 years after World War II most Americans saw communism as a menacing danger to our security and freedom, and they supported programs to oppose it. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty, Korea, Berlin, even far-fetched Grenada: Presidents could rally public support in the Manichaean framework of the Cold War.

Now there is no great enemy. Instead there are brutal internal conflicts and humanitarian crises. To rally Americans for intervention in those matters is difficult. Indeed fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in foreign affairs.

President George Bush, goaded by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, managed to rouse support for war on Iraq. He exaggerated: Saddam Hussein was "worse than Hitler." But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was undisguised aggression, and the threat to Western oil supplies did present a risk to national security.

To intervene effectively in any conflict abroad, a president must persuade the public that the United States has a national security interest there. …

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