The conduct of foreign policy requires will, more than expertise


WASHINGTON -- One of the enduring myths of political life in Washington is that success in foreign policy requires some special and arcane expertise on the part of a president. That argument is always advanced to support the candidacy of someone who has served in the Senate, the premise being that senators deal with these global issues all the time.

The myth is just that, however. For one thing, many senators don't know much more about foreign policy than your barber. Unless they have served for years on the Foreign Relations Committee, their putative expertise is often derived from serving on a few delegations traveling abroad.

The scorn that is heaped on outsiders is particularly derisive when aimed at governors who aspire to the White House. In fact, it can be argued that some of the great successes of foreign policy in recent years have been achieved by three former governors --Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and now Bill Clinton.

The key is not arcane knowledge but the ability to put together a skilled foreign-policy team, the instinct for recognizing when and how to use the power of the United States and -- most important -- the will to act.

Thus, Mr. Carter, the former Georgia governor, was willing to spend almost a full year of his presidency bargaining with Anwar Sadat and the prickly Menachem Begin to achieve the peace treaty signed at Camp David by Egypt and Israel in 1978.

Mr. Reagan, the former governor of California, had the vision to see that the Soviet Union could be put down eventually by the display of growing American military might and unyielding determination.

Mr. Clinton of Arkansas has had his ups and downs. He was forced to back away from his big talk during the 1992 campaign about issues as diverse as China policy, the war in Bosnia and the turmoil in Haiti. But he had the will to intervene in Haiti and pulled it off. And now he has shown the will to take the enormous political risks involved in confronting the Balkan crisis.

The direct political dividends of these initiatives are not always evident. Mr. Carter's approval rating in the Gallup Poll, for example, rose only a single percentage point after the Camp David summit in 1978. And his success didn't insulate him from criticism over his handling of the Iran hostage crisis two years later.

Projecting the image

But the ability to perform effectively on the world stage is an essential ingredient in trying to project an image as properly presidential. After his successes in the last year, Mr. Clinton surely is insulated against any serious argument that he is out of his league in dealing with international affairs.

This does not mean, however, that the president is insulated from political damage in the Bosnia situation. The decision to put 20,000 American troops into the former Yugoslavia is an extraordinary risk given the isolationist attitude of Americans and the nature of the perils those troops will be facing there.

Indeed, it is quite possible to see circumstances in which a backlash against the president could cost him re-election next year. That is most likely, of course, if fighting should break out again and U.S. forces suffer serious casualties trying to keep the peace.

But Mr. Clinton has been willing to take the chance involved in fulfilling his responsibilities as leader of the only remaining superpower. The voters may not find the argument compelling, but there is a strong case to be made that the U.S. position in the world requires such a role. The promise of a significant U.S. contribution to the NATO forces in Bosnia was essential to any agreement among the warring factions and to NATO's ability to function as the guarantor of the peace once achieved.

President Clinton didn't broker this agreement single-handedly. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Assistant Secretary Richard Holbrooke played critical roles in forcing these leaders to get serious. But Mr. Clinton put them there and then put himself on the line, and that didn't require special expertise gained in the Senate.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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