World affairs neglected in campaign discourse

Candidates and voters ignore foreign policy, prefer domestic issues

March 04, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Although voters might not know it from the campaign so far, the next president will face issues beyond tax cuts, health insurance and Bob Jones University.

Global terrorism, for example. A swelling trade deficit. A brooding, strengthening China. A desperate Russia. An unstable, war-torn Africa.

Yet in keeping with other post-Cold War presidential campaigns, foreign policy has been largely blotted out by domestic issues in the election of 2000.

While all four leading candidates "are hovered around the center" on foreign policy, according to James Goldgeier, a professor at George Washington University, their positions differ enough to have generated a vigorous debate. But so far, the candidates and the electorate have shown little desire for one.

Such neglect represents a missed opportunity for voters, some political analysts say. America is even more dominant on the international stage than it was four years ago. The next commander-in-chief will hold a giant lever over world affairs -- and enormous sway over how the world regards the United States.

"Just because the country is safe and at peace is not a reason to ignore these issues," said Joshua Muravchik, a foreign affairs specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's a reason for doing preventive things for keeping ourselves in this state."

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who among the contenders has the least foreign policy experience, has probably talked the most about international issues. That's no accident, say critics, who argue that he needs to create an impression of expertise to cover up a lack of credentials.

Bush's embarrassing reference to Greeks as "Grecians" and his flunking of a pop quiz on world leaders didn't improve his image as a governor whose foreign expertise amounted to a few meetings with the president of Mexico.

Undeterred, the Texas governor has tried to turn foreign policy to his advantage. In two major speeches, crafted by a stable of Republican foreign affairs veterans, Bush has projected an outward-looking, moderately hawkish vision of America's international role.

While America can't withdraw from all foreign complications, Bush says, it must do a far better job than the Clinton administration has done of picking its fights.

The United States "can't move from crisis to crisis like a cork in a current," Bush said in a speech last year at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Bush, whose advisers include Paul D. Wolfowitz, dean of the School for Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, favors a firmer policy than Clinton's toward Russia and China.

Bush's "cork in a current" phrase was a reference to the Clinton administration, whose supposed attention deficit disorder on foreign affairs has also been grist for the other major Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

McCain was critical of the White House for "self-doubt" and for "its spasmodic, vacillating and reactive approaches to world problems" in a speech at Kansas State University last year.

Though McCain criticized the Clinton administration's handling of the Kosovo crisis -- especially its initial ruling out of ground troops -- the Arizona senator supported the overall mission.

Like Bush, McCain says he believes that U.S. foreign policy should be more disciplined, linked to "a conceptual framework" that ranks America's interests and that drives policy accordingly. He wants to be more aggressive in arming and training indigenous opponents to repressive, terrorist-sponsoring regimes such as Iraq and North Korea.

But at the same time, McCain seems impelled by the same humanitarian impulse that pushed the Clinton Pentagon into Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

"There are times when our principles and our values are so offended that we have to do what we can to resolve a terrible situation," McCain said in a debate with Bush in South Carolina. The session offered what was arguably the broadest airing of foreign policy views so far in the campaign.

McCain implied that he would have sent U.S. troops into Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands died in ethnic clashes in 1994. Bush flatly ruled out such a mission, adding, "Nor do I think we ought to try to be peacekeepers around the world."

Bill Bradley holds the most expansive, humanitarian views on world affairs of all the candidates. Indeed, if any of the leading hopefuls differs significantly from his opponents on foreign policy, analysts say, it is the Democratic former senator.

In a speech Bradley gave at Tufts University last year, "I sensed there was more of a reaching out for dialogue with the world rather than an ongoing instruction to the world," said Peter F. Krogh, former dean of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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