One Democratic candidate for president at least understands the importance of foreign policy. Sen. Bob Kerrey left a part of himself in Vietnam because of other people's judgments.
With the economy providing an opportunity for a real contest in November, Democratic candidates and voters should pay close attention to the foreign-policy issue and its meaning for them.
They perceive that President Bush is vulnerable on domestic issues. So, I suspect, does he. That is where they should attack, find fault, point with scorn and propose alternatives. But that does not mean they should ignore foreign affairs or run against foreign policy, as many congressional Democrats want to do. Anything but.
Foreign policy is where all the Democratic candidates and most of the potential added starters are weakest. It is where the nominee will be attacked for incompetence. If former Sen. Paul Tsongas has any background or given thought to national security, we have yet to learn about it. Ditto for Gov. Mario Cuomo.
There is a vague, xenophobic, anti-foreign sentiment abroad in the land. It is anti-trade, anti-aid, anti-defense, anti-immigrant, anti-foreign policy, anti-anything. It is a terrible trap for Democrats. Foreign policy was never more important for the United States than now, when it is no longer all-powerful. The Cold War brought stability and clarity. Its end brings rapid change in an interdependent world. The United States is not self-sufficient in energy, capital or much else. It has a vital interest in just about everything that happens elsewhere.
Oil production in Kazakhstan, nuclear proliferation in South Asia, relations of the two Koreas, drug penetration in Venezuela, terrorism in Peru, foreign investment in Vietnam, the succession in Cambodia, the siege of Nagorno-Karabakh and relations between Iran and Tajikistan are a few questions on which the president elected in November must reach the best policy conclusions by Inauguration Day. So it is not enough to say, as Republican candidate Pat Buchanan does, ''America first.''
And it is wrong to crusade against foreign aid, saying the home folks need it more. Wrong because it assumes this country is generous to poor foreign countries, which it has not been in years. President Bush devotes less than 1 percent of his budget for fiscal 1993 to all forms of foreign aid. In absolute sums, Japan gives more. Far from carrying the U.N., the U.S. is in massive arrears on its dues. Foreign aid may be trimmable, but not with the results that some Democrats imply.
And it is wrong to demand bringing all the troops straight home. The U.S. forces in Europe and the Mediterranean provide a calm context for rapid political change. They reassure Europeans against resurgent German power or, more ominous, a Russian flip-flop. A stately and flexible reduction is in order, not jerking out. The same goes for the troops in South Korea. No doubt South Korea could bear more financial cost. But North Korea is such a flaky, militarist and insecure regime that sudden withdrawal could tempt mad adventures as in 1950. Phased reduction should sensitively reflect pan-Korean accord.
North American free trade is an issue barely explored by anybody and not fairly represented by slogans. What would the world and American economy be like if we brought Mexico under the tariff barrier -- or if we didn't? Any glib answer is wrong.
Foreign policy is the area of President Bush's strength. His personal calls to world leaders are legendary. He has a known fondness for clearly defined and brief military operations. The prospect of a world crisis at a convenient hour in September, making Americans worry about an untested finger on the button, is only too real. Any serious Democratic contender must keep abreast of Iraq, Libya, Haiti and other trouble-spots, ready to support or oppose an intervention on five minutes notice -- and be comfortable later with his own response.
The point is not to run against President Bush's foreign policy, even if the candidate finds real fault with it. No Democrat is going to beat Mr. Bush on foreign policy. Mr. Bush is going to win on it.
What a Democrat must do is demonstrate his own competence, to reassure doubters. Foreign policy is the most important thing the president does, and American voters want to be able to trust anyone to whom they give that power.
A Democrat is going to have to prove he has prepared for the presidency by studying foreign policy. This does not mean slogans and demagogy. It means well-researched position papers. It means a willingness to be dull and responsible. The tactic is defensive, for a nominee who will take the offensive on domestic policies. To his credit, Jimmy Carter did foreign-policy homework in the years before his run for the presidency in 1976. Have Messrs. Clinton, Tsongas, Harkin, Brown and Kerrey? Or Cuomo?
I suspect that Gov. Bill Clinton is ahead of the others. He took his own candidacy seriously first. He is a bright student of whatever he thinks he should learn. But none of the Democrats has been tested.
So when the campaign comes to Maryland, Democratic voters ought to give a lot of thought to foreign policy. That is where, in the autumn, the Republican negative juggernaut will destroy their nominee. Unless they find one who can stand up to the onslaught.