Foreign Affairs Are Foreign to Clinton

RICHARD REEVES

March 23, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- You will like Bill Clinton's foreign policy -- as soon as he has one. Anyway, if you don't like what you hear, he will change it in a paragraph or two.

Since we face the prospect that the governor of Arkansas could become the 42d president of the United States and commander in chief of the most powerful military machinery in the world, the time has come to consider what the man thinks about the world and our place in it.

Judging by the evidence, particularly a speech he gave last year, he has not figured that out yet. But between contradictory lines, it appears to me as if a President Clinton would probably change U.S. foreign and national security policy radically -- turning to a new set of younger wise men, the class of '68, and crafting an economics-driven American stance to replace the military-driven stand of the past 50 years.

''Governors know about getting jobs,'' said Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations and the baby boom. ''Bill Clinton understands economic foreign policy as well as anyone in the country.''

Mr. Mandelbaum is an old friend of the candidate's. They met in a hallway almost 25 years ago at University College, Oxford. He points out that his man knows the business-hunting commuter routes to Japan, Germany and other places where industrialists might be interested in a non-union state such as Arkansas.

Left unsaid is that governors rarely know much about such things as satellite intelligence, missile throw-weights or Yugoslavia.

The latter point was made in Mr. Clinton's long, ''A New Covenant for American Security,'' speech in December 1991 at Georgetown University, one of his many alma maters. The governor was, more or less, for everything he could think of and against most of it, too. If nothing else, the text provided quotations for all seasons.

''Given the problems we face at home, we do have to take care of our own people and their needs first,'' he said in the fourth paragraph. ''We need to remember the central lesson of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. We never defeated them on the field of battle. The Soviet Union collapsed from the inside out -- from economic, political and spiritual failure.''

So, as one would expect in these hard times, politicians who grew up with defeat in Vietnam rather than triumph in World War II, choose prosperity at home over power abroad. Or does he? The sixth paragraph begins: ''We can't allow this false choice between domestic policy and foreign policy to hurt our country and our economy.''

So Mr. Clinton chooses both, saying: ''Make no mistake: Foreign and domestic policy are inseparable in today's world.''

If you are an old-fashioned Cold Warrior and any of that seems naive or neo-isolationist, move on to the next page. Mr. Clinton becomes Star Warrior with a little neo-Reaganism: ''We still must set the level of our defense spending based on what we need to protect our interests. First, let's provide for a strong defense. Then we can talk about defense savings.''

There is something for everyone in Mr. Clinton's Covenant, much of it a montage of the day's headlines.

He talks of a new consensus of concern for the security threats of ethnic violence in places like Yugoslavia. Whose security? There is nothing we can do about Yugoslavia except to thank God that the madmen of the Balkans no longer are important enough to turn their national sport, killing each other, into world wars.

The speech goes on, quoting John Kennedy and such with a surprising obtuseness about the presidential differences between the 1960s and now. For better or worse, Mr. Clinton is not the only well-educated American who sees foreign affairs through the prism of domestic concerns. In John Kennedy's time the opposite was true: Domestic affairs were gauged by their impact on our foreign posture. For two years Kennedy's principal concern about civil rights was that demonstrations were embarrassing America.

Presumably Mr. Clinton will learn. He is a smart fellow whose roots sometimes seem to go deeper into the thinking fields of Oxford, Yale and Georgetown University than into the soil of Arkansas.

The other Rhodes Scholars in the hallway where he met Mike Mandelbaum, who had come from Cambridge to pick up a typewriter, were Mr. Clinton's roommate, Strobe Talbott, now Time magazine's ranking international thinker, and Robert Reich, now at Harvard thinking and writing about international productivity.

An even older friend, from Georgetown days, who sees all diplomacy as an extension of economics, is Roger Altman, a New York investment banker and former assistant secretary of the Treasury.

That Class of '68, along with a few older men -- particularly Anthony Lake, a National Security Council assistant to Henry Kissinger who resigned over the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1970 -- are involved in a process that seems more and more and more important to all Americans: the education of Bill Clinton.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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