Poll policy is the best policy? For whom?

September 12, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- We now see the disadvantages of a foreign policy driven by electoral considerations, developed from focus groups and public-opinion polls. Put another way, the chickens are coming home to roost.

They arrive from the Eastern Mediterranean in general, Kurdistan in particular, and from Bosnia, Russia, Western Europe and Cuba. Policies conceived to please interest groups in the United States are producing good poll results for presidential candidate Bill Clinton, but negative results for the United States.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has once again administered a defeat to the United States, chasing the CIA out of northern Iraq, where American agents were organizing Kurdish and Arab opponents of President Hussein to launch an attempt to overthrow him.

Surprised the CIA

The Iraqi army's northward attack at the beginning of September caught the CIA and its clients off-guard. Hundreds of the opponents have been murdered by Mr. Hussein's political police, more will be, and the CIA's people have fled.

Many in Washington criticize President Clinton for not doing more than launch two waves of missile attacks in retaliation. But what would they have him William Pfaff

do? Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where the United States or NATO have air bases, were against the missile attacks on Iraq, and the American public would have been hostile to risking pilot casualties in a manned aircraft intervention to defend the Kurds.

The CIA was in northern Iraq for essentially U.S. domestic political reasons. Despite the manifest unlikelihood of a successful coup against the Iraqi president, promising one has been the subject of a bidding war in American politics, Republicans and Democrats each insisting that they are more ferocious than the other in what they would do to Mr. Hussein.

However, the Republicans can cry to the heavens about what furies they would unleash without having to do it -- unless they win this election. Mr. Clinton, to trump them, has had to act, leading the nation to its present humiliation.

It is our latest example of politically inspired self-inflicted defeat.

Another has been the Helms-Burton and d'Amato legislation attempting to block or punish foreigners' trade with Cuba and Iran, passed by Congress and signed by the president to please American lobbies.

The U.S. government's determination to expand NATO membership has also been driven by ethnic lobbies in the United States. Policy toward Israel obviously is heavily influenced by domestic political pressure.

No lobby for democracy

Yugoslav democrats have friends in the U.S. but no electoral lobby, so since last year's intervention to stop the war in Bosnia, the United States has deliberately chosen to make no serious attempt to enforce the Dayton agreement measures intended to assure fair elections.

As a result the general election there Saturday will undoubtedly have the effect of confirming the division of that country along ethnic lines, which both Croatia and the Bosnian Serbs wanted from the start. So much for the principles embraced by Mr. Clinton.

Domestic lobbies obviously have every right to press Congress and the president to do their bidding. But politicians who purport to serious leadership also have an obligation to weigh the national interest against the factional interest, and to govern with attention to what is better for the American nation.

The latest bombardment of Iraq has turned America's Arab allies in the Persian Gulf war against Washington -- Saudi Arabia included. This U.S. policy toward Iraq is supposed to be motivated by the need to protect Saudi Arabia against Iraq, but the policy has come unhinged from the objective.

The European allies and Canada today are unhappy about the unilateralism of U.S. policy, and of course are seriously angry about the Helms-Burton and d'Amato laws -- and the persisting American determination to dominate the U.N. while refusing to pay for it.

The allies in the past have shrugged off comparable problems, expecting post-electoral Washington to back off from its campaign excesses, and the European Union has indeed just decided to postpone retaliation against Washington's exercises in extraterritorial law-making until after November.

Disregard of realities

It probably is mistaken to do so. This approach to foreign policy is no longer an election-year phenomenon. It is what the American policy process is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Policy will be set in terms of domestic political advantage, with general disregard of the subtleties, and often the realities, of the foreign-policy issue.

The opinions and interests of allies will be disregarded, as they do not vote in American elections or count in U.S. political popularity polls.

The American approach to problems, particularly those identified with ''rogue'' states, will emphasize military measures, but will employ them in the stand-off fashion by which the attacks on Iraq were executed.

The current equipment program for American forces emphasizes robot intelligence-gathering and battlefield surveillance, and cruise missiles and space-launched weapons systems. These promise to give the United States global intervention capabilities without ground troop involvement and with minimal risk of casualties.

It is a military system that springs from the deeply felt American impulse to keep the world at a distance, on the one hand, and on the other hand to exercise what some commentators now call ''benevolent hegemony.'' It represents a confused but significant attempt to reconcile isolationism with interventionism.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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