External Power Begins at Home


March 14, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

On one side are the cries of "America first," and "Come home,America," -- opposing trade, aid, military strength, international cooperation and even thinking about foreign affairs.

This is not to be dismissed just because such proponents as Tom Harkin and Pat Buchanan have lost presidential primaries. It is a powerful force in American public opinion that has left Congress and White House impotent abroad.

And whether President Bush ought to appease the crusade on PTC his right, when the danger to his re-election is the economy and centrist voters, he has caved in to it.

On the other side is the trenchant analysis of the nation's low profile by people in what is loosely called the foreign-policy community, who are accustomed to expounding on how the world should be run.

Suddenly these people have a great articulator, who has summed up what's wrong in a supposedly friendly criticism of administration foreign policy. The name of this lucid analyst is Richard M. Nixon. He demands Washington do more than "the mere tokenism" so far to save the anti-Communist, pro-democracy revolution in Russia.

He calls aid to date "a pathetically inadequate response in light of the opportunities and dangers we face in the crisis in the

former Soviet Union." He knows foreign aid is unpopular. "But the mark of great political leadership is not simply to support what is popular, but to make what is unpopular popular if that serves America's national interest." He threatens the present crowd in Washington with a "Who lost Russia?" witch-hunt should Boris Yeltsin go down. He should know about that.

Mr. Nixon is right, whether one welcomes his rehabilitation as elder statesman or not. President Bush and responsible senatorial Democrats -- not a Nixon fan club -- should agree.

Mr. Nixon's outburst cannot harm reception of his new book, "Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower World."

But there is something missing in this either-or debate on foreign versus domestic priorities. That is the relationship between the two.

A country that sees itself the world's grossest debtor is not going to undertake huge new obligations. However deserving Russia is, it is a lot bigger than Israel or Egypt and far more expensive to underwrite.

A country in which people believe themselves getting poorer, in which public health statistics go down and in which vast homelessness is accepted, is not going to dominate the world for long.

A country of crumbling infrastructure, which abolishes nationwide standards for expressways, is not going to be the economic model for the world.

The reverse of that coin is also true. An isolationist country unable or unwilling to influence trade, human rights or other matters abroad is not going to protect its interests. A country not held in respect by the rest of the world will not fare well in dealings to benefit its people. To be strong abroad, a nation must be strong at home. And vice versa.

Presently, the relationship is summed up by the infinite, unimaginable size of the federal debt, which gets larger every year of "deficit reduction," which is really a dishonest name for debt enlargement.

The portion of the budget that pays interest is so huge that it snuffs out any meaningful promise of improvement in education, health, housing, welfare or urban renewal. It also is the reason, in case former President Nixon wasn't paying attention, that foreign aid is continually going down as a share of budget or gross national product.

A year ago, its stunning coordination of the gulf war made the United States seem to be the world's last superpower. But in some ways Russia remains a superpower. It stretches from Poland to Alaska and can still blow us all up. And in other ways, the United States is ceasing to be a superpower, only more slowly.

The unemployed worker, the family unable to buy a house, the homeless on city streets, the school dropout, the teen-age crime lord all doubt that the United States is a superpower.

Mr. Nixon is right, but President Bush is getting a bum rap. He cannot exercise the power Mr. Nixon recommends, though he can use his office more effectively to educate the people. The damage was done when Mr. Bush was vice president, when President Reagan and a compliant Democratic Congress agreed hock the nation.

The United States is not going to exercise its due power until it ends its deficits and reduces its debt. Nor will it provide decent services to its citizens until then.

External power and domestic strength go together. The United States cannot have one without the other. It is not either/or, but both or neither.

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