World politics and ours

September 14, 1996|By Daniel Berger

HAVE PITY ON countries that must deal with this one in an election year. They put up with U.S. policy-making that sees foreign policy only as domestic voting issues, for one whole year in every four.

President Clinton's domestic policy gestures are widely seen as savvy if cynical election ploys, to be corrected after election if necessary. His signature on the welfare-reform bill is typical.

But his foreign policy is equally prioritized by the departed Dick Morris. It isn't what's right, but what will take away the opportunity for Republicans to attack.

His signature on the bill to penalize foreign companies that invest in Libyan or Iranian oil was rotten foreign policy. Its presumption to govern the world infuriates friendly governments and businesses without isolating Libya or Iran. But if he didn't sign, Republicans would attack him for that. He did and they can't.

The purest example of this was the U.S. pronouncement that Boutros Boutros-Ghali is unacceptable for a second term as U.N. secretary general.

Had this been real foreign policy, the State Department would have worked it up quietly with allies among the permanent members of the Security Council.

It did no such thing. Allies were unconsulted and offended.

So Mr. Boutros-Ghali will be forced out because the U.S. will veto his nomination in the Security Council. But the U.S. will then accept whomever the rest impose, and claim to like it. No U.S.- favored candidate need apply.

The U.S. hits back

This is the context in which to understand the war of nerves, words and bombs between the United States and Iraq, or between Presidents Clinton and Saddam Hussein.

Both must be haunted by the memory of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran ensuring defeat of President Carter in 1980 by holding Americans hostage and Carter impotent.

Why Khomeini would have wanted a Reagan presidency escapes explanation, as does why Saddam Hussein might prefer a political heir of George Bush. The mere thrill of pushing one over must be enough.

The U.S. failed to heal the rift between rival Kurdish guerrilla movements. But when Iraqi troops joined their new Kurdish clients in Erbil, that became symbolic defiance of the U.S. during the election campaign.

Criticism that President Clinton cynically exploited this for an opportunity to look triumphant was misplaced. He sent the missiles so as not to appear a loser.

Sending U.S. troops to remote northern Iraq was out. The U.S. would use weapons that would not risk the life of a pilot or basing in a country unwilling to provide it. That narrowed target selection to objectives for which cruise missiles are the appropriate weapon.

Although Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party was never the U.S. enemy, its sweeping success is suddenly seen as Saddamite, requiring U.S. retribution against Iraq. Otherwise, the flexible Jack Kemp would portray President Clinton as the wimp who wouldn't hit back.

Presumably, even Saddam Hussein could anticipate the next strike and was willing to take it for the brief illusion of victory. (He cannot buy Mr. Barzani and merely rented him. They will fall out.)

Republican candidates will support the troops while condemning their commander-in-chief. The less they say, the more effective. The American people will decide what they think about all this.

Presidents are never as good or bad at foreign policy as they seem. Foreigners with other agendas have more influence over events than our politics credits them with having.

U.S. foreign policy will get back to honest assessments and real attempts to extend U.S. influence, but only after this election.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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