Foreign policy is unlikely to sink Clinton presidency ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


WASHINGTON -- If President Clinton had his druthers, he probably would prefer for the Bosnia crisis to simply go away. It is a problem for which there may be no solution, let alone an easy one.

But the Republicans are probably kidding themselves if they believe the president can be brought down politically on his handling of foreign policy. It is a lesson they should have learned from the experience of George Bush two years ago.

Bush himself set the new Republican tone in a speech to a party dinner the other day in which he complained of the "start-and-stop leadership" Clinton had been providing in international affairs. If he had been similarly uncertain, the former president said, Saddam Hussein would be in Riyadh today.

Then Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole accused the president of abdicating American leadership at the United Nations, at NATO and around the globe." Said Dole: "When Ronald Reagan and George Bush were around, people slept pretty well at night because from a foreign policy standpoint we had real leaders in the White House."

This kind of rhetoric is, of course, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser with .. partisan audiences such as Dole's at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. These are not people who cotton to the idea of the United Nations or NATO making decisions that bind the United States.

It is also obvious that the attack on Clinton on foreign policy fits whatever design Dole has on the presidency himself. If he runs in 1996, the Kansas Republican inevitably will be obliged to present himself as the quintessential experienced old Washington hand who knows how to get things done at home and abroad.

Clinton, moreover, has provided more than a little ammunition to his critics. He has marched up the hill and down again on policy toward Bosnia until the decision this week to embrace the NATO policy of threatening air strikes against the Serbs while urging the Muslims to accept peace terms that fall far short of what they want. The attempt to act in Haiti turned into a humiliation, and the escape from Somalia was little better.

The president's sensitivity on this history was never clearer than in the way he quickly rushed to the cameras last week to announce the NATO decision at the White House even before it was announced at NATO headquarters.

But the Republicans -- and others in Congress have been joining the chorus every day -- are operating in a time warp in their criticism of Clinton on foreign policy. Recent political history shows that barring a direct threat to national security, domestic concerns always are more important than foreign policy in the eyes of voters.

Nor is the world situation today comparable in any way to that when Ronald Reagan and George Bush were elected to the White House. The collapse of communism and end of the Cold War came after Bush's triumph in 1988, and neither Dole nor anyone else is likely to persuade Americans they are similarly threatened by North Korea or even China.

The predictable result is that opinion polls consistently show foreign policy concerns ranking far behind the voters' interest in the condition of the economy, crime, health care, education and welfare. The problem for the Republicans here is that Clinton has seized the initiative on all of these questions, including even that long-standing Republican standby, crime.

None of this suggests that Clinton can be impervious to a perception that he is out of his depth on foreign policy. In a close contest in 1996, it is possible to write a scenario in which such an image would tip the scales against him.

The single most threatening possibility for Clinton is one he clearly intends to avoid -- the loss of a large number of American lives because of a foreign policy decision that went sour. The recognition of that reality is what lies behind the president's stressing that the willingness to use air strikes in Bosnia is not a first step toward using ground forces.

The Bosnia story is on the front page these days, put there largely by the television pictures of the slaughter in Sarajevo last weekend. And there are likely to be many other times in the next two years in which the news is dominated by an international crisis of greater or lesser moment.

But if Bob Dole believes this is the kind of issue on which Bill Clinton can be defined and defeated, he is kidding himself.

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