Expectations are small on presidents' foreign trips



WASHINGTON -- Barring some direct threat to national security, presidents of the United States don't get re-elected on their expertise in conducting foreign policy. That lesson was taught most emphatically in the defeat of George Bush in 1992.

But it is also true that any president must establish what the politicians like to call "a comfort level" within the electorate about his ability to deal with international questions and foreign leaders. That is essentially what President Clinton has managed with his Asian summit at Vancouver and now his first trip to Europe.

He has shown, in essence, that he is sophisticated enough for the assignment. He won't spit in the soup.

In fact, Clinton's tour of Europe was distinguished by what appeared to be several clear successes. Partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed with his plan for a Partnership for Peace under which eastern European states were granted the recognition that ultimately could lead to NATO membership. Moreover, these former Warsaw Pact allies swallowed the half a loaf with relative equanimity.

The president also could claim successes -- clearly prearranged for the occasion -- in the agreement under which Ukraine will dismantle 1,800 nuclear warheads, most of them pointed at the United States, and in the agreement with Boris N. Yeltsin. Unverifiable though the agreement may be, under it the United States and Russia will turn their missiles away from each other's territory by May 30.

In an age in which what matters most of all is what appears on television, Clinton also appeared to score stylistically in projecting an image of himself as both relaxed and the established leader of the international community. By any normal political reckoning, the president's pub crawl in Prague was what his campaign consultants would call "a good hit." In Moscow, Clinton appeared to manage that fine line between reinforcing the position of Yeltsin and intruding into the internal affairs of Russia.

There were, unsurprisingly, a couple of bumpy spots. The president and his colleagues at NATO once again were exposed as unwilling or unable to find any new approach to the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. The result was another blustering threat to bomb the Serbs if they don't stop bombing Bosnia with such ferocity.

Clinton's glowing press coverage also was blemished briefly by his display of anger at being confronted on foreign soil by nitty-gritty questions about a very domestic matter, his role in the Whitewater Development Corp. back home in Arkansas.

The president apparently felt that the questions were inappropriate in such circumstances because they didn't coincide with his definition of the news that day -- meaning what was happening on the trip. But he finally conceded, in effect, that he had brought those questions down on himself by failing to deal with the decision on a special counsel to investigate Whitewater long before he flew off to Europe.

So the bottom line on the Clinton trip probably would be that it was a public relations success in establishing his basic credentials on foreign policy. But in political terms, the trip was essentially meaningless. If there is one consistent attitude reflected in public opinion polls in the United States these days, it is that the politicians should concentrate on domestic issues and not worry about the rest of the world.

That attitude is clear in the hostility to foreign aid programs. It is also clear in the unwillingness of Americans to become involved in international crises such as the situation in Bosnia if there is any chance of substantial U.S. casualties. Everyone wanted to rush into Somalia when the networks were showing those starving children; everyone wanted to flee just as quickly when they showed that body being dragged through the streets.

In a more perfect world, it might be hoped that the president would use his position to lead his constituents into accepting some policies with an element of risk -- such as would be involved, for example, in any intrusion in Bosnia. That is what leadership is supposed to be all about.

But only a year out of Little Rock, Clinton doesn't have the credibility as a steward of foreign policy to take any chances. The most he can hope to achieve right now is what he managed in the past week -- a demonstration he is not out of his league.

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