Clinton, too, struggling to focus on one priority ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 20, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- As the dilemma in Bosnia intrudes on President Clinton's efforts to achieve passage of his economic stimulus package at home, he is a kind of mirror image of the man he sent packing from the White House in November.

All through former President George Bush's last year in office, he was plagued with the reputation as a man too single-mindedly focused on foreign affairs to pay sufficient attention to the economic recession at home that would not go away.

Clinton, by contrast, finds a major foreign-policy situation snapping at his heels as he seeks single-mindedly to address questions of economic recovery that he charged Bush, persuasively to a plurality of American voters, with essentially ignoring.

Bush saw initiatives and adventures abroad as an effective way not only to satisfy his own greater personal interest in foreign affairs but also to build his reputation as a strong leader and, not coincidentally, temporarily divert voters' attentions from deepening problems on the home front.

For Clinton, the developing question of whether to use force to prevent the further slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at the hands of Bosnian Serbs bent on more "ethnic cleansing" is clearly an unwanted distraction from his stated determination to zero in on the American economy as his first and greatest priority.

Bush's political advisers in the 1992 campaign confessed later they were inhibited by their candidate's narrow view of his prime presidential responsibility as keeper of world peace. Once elected in 1988, they said, Bush wanted to put domestic politicking on a back burner and concentrate on his role as world leader.

The collapse of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union on his watch led to his grandiose concept of a "new world order" with the United States as the sole surviving superpower calling the shots, in consultation with other nations that looked to him for leadership. It was very heady stuff, especially when Bush masterfully constructed a fighting coalition against Saddam Hussein and brought off a spectacularly swift military victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Bush tried to bask in the glory of that feat right into a second term in the White House, but domestic troubles intruded. Even when they did, he refused for months to recognize the recession for what it was, then insisting it was over when it wasn't. He clearly longed for the comfort of the foreign stage on which to play post-Cold War leader.

As voters hurting at home grew impatient with Bush's globe-trotting, Clinton in 1992 was able to capitalize on Bush's continued focus on foreign affairs to advance domestic issues to the forefront of the campaign agenda. In the process, he established himself as a political leader for the post-Cold War era -- not only willing but eager to devote his attention and energies to problems at home, now that the major global confrontation of close to half a century had substantially cooled.

.5l Inherent in Clinton's whole 1992 pitch was that it was time for America to come home and tend to her own knitting. Clinton's campaign proposals for cuts in military spending reflected that view, and while his controversial history of staying out of the military during the Vietnam war caused him considerable difficulty during the campaign, at the same time it reinforced the impression that here was a man who wasn't likely to engage in military adventures as Ronald Reagan did in Grenada and Bush in Panama -- and the Gulf.

While it is too much to say that Bush would have welcomed the intrusion of the Bosnia nightmare as a chance to shift attention to the foreign-policy stage, he probably wouldn't have minded the diversion in domestic political terms. For Clinton, however, the demand for U.S. military action in Bosnia is the last thing he needs as he struggles to achieve economic reform at home.

Clinton has made it clear that the United States is not going to act unilaterally in Bosnia. Had Bush been re-elected, he'd likely be pursuing with relish another "new world order" coalition with European allies to use military force, as in the Gulf war. But Clinton's eye is on the home front, or at least he's trying to keep it there.

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