Stumping in Syria

October 23, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun Contributing writer Nelson Schwartz provided information for this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has decided he can commune with voters in Iowa and Michigan some other time. A Rhode Island trip was "rescheduled." The president's town hall meeting planned for Tuesday in Akron? Nobody at the White House seems to remember anything about it.

Instead of these trips, Mr. Clinton added a last-minute campaign stop in . . . Syria.

Tuesday morning, two weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm elections, Mr. Clinton will leave for an impromptu five-day swing through the Middle East, a trip planned so hurriedly that the details -- including which nations he will visit -- were being nailed down as late as Friday afternoon.

He also plans to visit Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait. Some of those countries may be rich in history and oil, but not in votes. So why does Mr. Clinton want to press the flesh overseas instead of at home?

The answer, which underscores the volatility and vagaries of modern politics, is that this president, a domestic policy maven, is suddenly being shown to his best advantage while presiding over foreign policy.

By scheduling an ambitious foreign trip so close to the election, the White House is gambling that the growth in Mr. Clinton's stature as a foreign leader will translate into votes for Democratic candidates next month.

Only a month ago, Mr. Clinton's advisers were insisting that he had to quit talking in public only about Haiti, and get onto the issues voters cared much more deeply about: Crime, taxes and the economy.

But suddenly, Saddam Hussein put his elite Republican Guards on the march again. Just as quickly, Mr. Clinton countered by dispatching combat-ready U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf.

In the midst of this crisis, Mr. Clinton presided over the forced abdication of Haiti's military rulers and the triumphant return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power -- all without losing a single American soldier, sailor or Marine in combat.

And all the while, negotiators dispatched to Geneva by Mr. Clinton were hammering out a painstaking accord with North Korea that, if honored, will make the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Almost overnight, a president who had been dismissed by many experts -- and a majority of voters -- as lacking any knack for foreign policy came to be seen by more and more people as decisive and successful.

"You've got to admit -- his foreign policy is picking up," said Bruce D. Henderson, a Baltimore housing inspector who was in a group of Baltimore residents interviewed about Mr. Clinton this week by The Sun.

That view is catching on around the nation as well.

Three polls done this week for various news organizations -- and private polls done for the White House -- showed that Mr. Clinton's approval rating in foreign policy has increased markedly.

Gains 12 points

A poll done for Times Mirror showed that 48 percent approve of the president's handling of foreign affairs, compared with only 36 percent last month.

Another poll, done by the Gallup polling organization for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, showed that an overwhelming majority favor Mr. Clinton's actions in Iraq.

Also, that poll shows that after his actions on Haiti and Iraq, 42 percent have confidence in Mr. Clinton's ability "to handle a crisis" -- up from 27 percent a year ago.

"Obviously, we think we had a pretty good week," George Stephanopoulos, a senior White House adviser, said in an


He cited the White House's foreign policy success as one reason why beleaguered Democratic candidates in Congress might be able to rebound in time to hold the line against the expected Republican onslaught on Nov. 8.

They have reason to be happy at the White House.

With angry voters sounding as if they want to turn out incumbents coast to coast, with Democratic candidates avoiding Clinton like a leper and with the public giving him little credit for a sustained economic recovery, the president's strategists were desperate for a way to showcase his successes.

"Who woulda thunk it would be foreign policy?" one bemused White House aide said Friday.

Actually, history suggests that foreign policy initiatives can be an effective strategy to bolster the standing of a sitting president.

President Richard M. Nixon launched his great push to open China just before his 1972 re-election campaign. And when Watergate began eroding his popularity, Nixon found refuge in Moscow -- and in a Middle East trip.

Timing is unusual

"It isn't unusual to go abroad if the president is blocked at home," said Stephen J. Hess, a presidential scholar at Washington's Brookings Institution.

"They have more wiggle room in foreign policy than in domestic policy. There is nothing unique about what he's doing except in the timing -- presidents usually don't drop campaigning to go overseas."

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Clinton made the same point himself.

"I never would have anticipated going to the Middle East at this particular season," Mr. Clinton said.

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