Who lost George Bush? With foreign policy adrift

A.M. Rosenthal

March 26, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE WAY American politics is working out, a governor of Arkansas has the opportunity to take up a task of transcending importance that a president of the United States has left undone.

The job is to tell the people of this country and of the world exactly what the United States should do and plans to do with the influence it still commands, before it is completely frittered away.

This is Gov. Bill Clinton's great chance not only to look presidential but to act presidential. It comes to him because he is the likely Democratic candidate -- and also because President Bush has failed so sadly to carry it out himself.

After more than three years in office, with all horizons open to to him because of the fall of communism and the triumph of American arms, these are some of the results of Bush's foreign policy stewardship:

1. The United States acts worried, frightened and confused about the fall of communism, as if it were a kind of global pain in the neck, not a time for joy, helping and leadership.

2. In the Middle East, Bush has left Saddam Hussein in power, Iraq's nuclear capacity still in existence, millions of Iraqis hunted and starved in the mountains and swamps.

3. Now Bush is destroying the Israeli-Arab peace talks by demonstrating the one thing he has managed to make clear about his foreign policy: his determination to cancel Israel's status as an ally or even worthy friend of the United States.

4. On China, he vetoes every congressional effort to lift a finger to dissuade Beijing from torturing and imprisoning Chinese dissidents. They never had dreamt this terrible thing that America would turn its back on them.

He allows China to peddle slave-labor goods to the U.S. and missiles to the dictatorships. He walks away from the Tibetans -- as he has from Kurds, Balts and Haitians.

5. In the breakup of Yugoslavia, the plans and goals of Bush-Baker policy are known, but to God alone.

But it is not unfathomable, this record in a man so endowed with experience and power. One thing has been missing in Bush. He has never really shown he understands the strength of America's greatest asset: political democracy. It is what most people long for, and so many have died for. It is the one historically reliable barrier to war: Democracies do not attack democracies.

He does not get it. George Bush lost George Bush.

Lost, Bush protects a Chinese tyranny that gave us the Khmer Rouge. He appeases Middle Eastern dictatorships that live by war against neighbors or their own people. He seems in mourning for the communist Soviet Kremlin of the Gorbachev era.

Those who voted for him but are now saddened by him are the people Clinton -- or any other Democrat -- will need to win in November.

Clinton gave a firm hedge on the Persian Gulf war last year and recently gave another on how to deal with Saddam. To win on Election Day, he must soon show himself more candidly and clearly -- Tsongas talking Southern.

The governor made a good start in a foreign policy speech at Georgetown University. It has its share of platitudes. But it is also rich and thoughtful with details about specific strategic and political goals, too many to cover in one column.

But at its heart seems an understanding of democratic realism -- the meaning, strength and stabilizing power of political freedom:

"We cannot disregard how other governments treat their own people, whether their domestic institutions are democratic or repressive, whether they help encourage or check illegal conduct beyond their borders . . . Democracies don't go to war against each other."

The polls may keep telling him voters don't care about foreign affairs. But Clinton can best show respect for himself and the voters by reminding us over and over that the safety, jobs and hopes of Americans are so tied to the world that foreign policy is domestic policy.

If Clinton keeps thinking and keeps talking about the value of democratic realism to his country and the peace of the world, he will never lose himself, or Americans who vote for him.

A.M. Rosenthal writes a syndicated column for the New York Times.

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