Young Clinton and Old Thinking on Foreign Policy

RICHARD REEVES

August 03, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- Free advice to Bill Clinton on foreign policy: Act your age!

The Democratic candidate should memorize these two sentences from The Economist, the British magazine: ''Because he is young, from a generation formed by Woodstock and Vietnam rather than Yalta and Cuba, his mind is uncluttered by the debris of the Cold War, and his view of the world is fresh. Many will think it high time that a man of his age and outlook woke the nation up.''

So why is he so eager to debate President Bush on such things as comparisons between Beirut and Sarajevo? Why is he so eager to project 20-20 hindsight on the final hours of the Gulf War? Pride? Perhaps he wants to prove that he really did graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

He sounds tinny. As one should avoid arguments with men who own printing presses, presidential candidates should avoid tactical foreign-policy arguments with incumbents who have armies -- of soldiers and diplomats. Next, Mr. Clinton, who was a draft-dodger, will get the idea of riding around in a tank to film a television commercial.

The argument against U.S. policy in Iraq was not whether we should continue to slaughter people on the road from Kuwait City to Baghdad -- while the whole world watched and British pilots were refusing to fly murder sorties. The argument was whether young Americans should risk their lives to defend medieval princes and cover up the White House stupidity that convinced Saddam Hussein that Kuwait was his for the taking.

New thinking is what the American people seem to want from the Democrats on both domestic and foreign policy -- in that order.

Part of the great appeal of the party's new-generation ticket is that they are blissfully ignorant of some of the conventional wisdom of Cold War-gaming. Mr. Clinton's greatest foreign-policy strength in the past has been his understanding that it is now a domestic issue: determining America's place economically, politically and militarily -- again in that order -- in a new world undistracted by throw-weights and jungle insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.

''Changing Our Ways'' is the title of an interesting new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A distinguished group of younger foreign-policy thinkers, headed by Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China, begins by saying: ''This is the time for us to change the way we think about the world and the way we conduct our affairs at home and abroad. . . . Today, foreign policy can raise or lower the cost of your home mortgage, create a new job or cause you to lose the one you've got.''

That is the way Mr. Clinton talks at his best. No one wants details from him. We got that from Jimmy Carter. We want -- the new cliche -- an attitude. Mr. Clinton has good men (and soon, one hopes, good women) to keep abreast of details, history and continuity -- beginning with advisers like Anthony Lake and Michael Mandelbaum and older wise men like Warren Christopher.

What the next president must provide is what -- bite my tongue -- Ronald Reagan provided: a coherent view of America's new role in a new world, a vision that can be explained in as many words as the Gettysburg Address.

This is a new time, and Mr. Clinton's vision has to begin with the realization by his countrymen that in many foreign-policy matters in the future it will not matter what the president of the United States wants -- or even what the American people want. Other peoples are going to do what they want to do and we can change that in only two ways: with young fighting men or young ideas.

Flying from Chicago to San Francisco last Tuesday, Governor Clinton said this: ''I just don't think that either side should play a lot of politics with this country's foreign policy. We ought to be working to develop bipartisan foreign policy . . . and attention ought to be turned to the incredible problems of Americans here at home.''

The ending is better than the beginning in that statement. Americans do not want more bipartisan foreign policy; they want a new foreign policy, with new ideas, new men and new women, beginning with a younger president who has gotten past old arguments.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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