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
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
Although his legacy is inchoate, the Clinton worldview has
rapidly matured. …