WASHINGTON -- The annual economic summit of the Group of Seven usually has little political meaning because so little takes place that might have any direct effect on anyone's life.
The president, whoever it happens to be, puts on a blue suit and a red tie and goes somewhere to meet similarly attired leaders of other major industrial nations for a few days. They discuss common issues, issue fiendishly opaque communiques and then home and, as you might expect, do whatever is in their own national interests. If anything memorable has happened in the 20 years of these meetings, we don't remember it.
There is, however, always the potential for self-inflicted wounds, and President Clinton seized the opportunity at Naples to shoot himself in the foot once again. And, in his case, it is the kind of setback he can least afford.
The rejection of Clinton's attempt to put the G-7 on record for exploring further liberalization of trade was a clear embarrassment, engineered by Francois Mitterrand but with the backing of both Britain and Germany. The problem, the French )) leader argued, was that Clinton was trying for a commitment for further action when the accord reached under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiated in December has yet to be ratified by some of the 123 signatories, France and the United States included.
And if anyone missed the point, Mitterrand's spokesman described the proposal as "novel, bizarre and unprecedented . . . something like a UFO."
Ordinarily, a little dustup between Mitterrand and Clinton would be no reason for any political concern on the part of the White House. Indeed, it can be argued that getting into a tiff with the haughty French isn't all bad. But in this case, the G-7's abrupt treatment of the president seems to add to the growing perception that Clinton is out of his depth on foreign policy.
To some degree, this is a question of timing. The embarrassment at the G-7 meeting came at the same time Clinton was under constant fire for a series of U-turns in U.S. policy toward Haiti -- and only a day after a Panamanian government that owes its existence to the United States, although not to Clinton, reneged on an agreement to accept some of the Haitian refugees.
It also came only a day after some incautious comments by Clinton about the weakening of the dollar set off even further declines until the White House rushed out with new promises not to let it slide indefinitely.
The picture of Clinton in trouble on foreign policy has been built by a series of episodes -- reversals in policy on Bosnia and Somalia and, of course, North Korea as well as Haiti.
It has reached the point at which Republicans now are convinced that the president may be vulnerable on the issue in the 1996 election. Thus, for instance, one aspirant for the Republican nomination, Dick Cheney, has made it a staple of his speeches to party audiences to deride Clinton's need for "tutorials" on foreign policy and national security issues.
And, to no one's surprise, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole is so focused on attacking Clinton in this area that he even taxed him for issuing a pro forma statement of regret on the death of Kim Il Sung.
The conventional wisdom in politics is that, barring an international crisis directly threatening to the United States, foreign policy issues don't make much difference in presidential campaigns. That axiom seems to be supported by the way George Bush was thrown out of office after getting only 38 percent of the vote only 18 months after the Persian Gulf war because the voters had turned the page and were focused instead on the economy and domestic concerns.
But Jimmy Carter was vulnerable in 1980 not because the taking of the hostages in Iran was a direct threat to the U.S. but because the episode crystallized doubts about Carter's strength a national leader.
In Clinton's case, the questions are not about his strength so much as about his sophistication in foreign policy, and the last thing he needs is fresh evidence that he is blundering around the world.
Voters may not reject a president on foreign policy issues, but they do require a certain level of comfort about the steward of that policy. Bill Clinton has not yet provided that assurance, and the G-7 meeting obviously made it more difficult.