Foreign policy politics falls flat, but voters don't care


WASHINGTON -- The Republicans may be huffing and puffing about what Bob Dole calls President Clinton's "photo-op foreign policy." But they are kidding themselves if they think there is any political gold for them in the continued deadlock between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The White House clearly oversold the notion that the president was taking some great risk in inviting Yasser Arafat and Binyamin Netanyahu to meet under his auspices after they wouldn't even return each other's telephone calls.

It was clear Mr. Clinton was nourishing some notion of making a dramatic breakthrough toward a resumption of the peace process in the Middle East. This is a president who always believes he can talk a dog off a meat truck. But, as it turned out, all he got was a handshake between the two that had the appearance of civility.

For the president's political purposes, that was probably enough. He had fulfilled his responsibility as the leader of the world's only superpower to move the situation off dead center and prevent a further escalation of the violence that had cost so many lives in the last week. But, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher said of the two adversaries, "It rests with them to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made."

The voters understand that. They have seen one president after another, for almost half a century, trying with varying degrees of success to influence the confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians -- often enough not to expect some miracle solution from Bill Clinton.

And even those who have enjoyed some success have found the political payoff meager indeed. The first breakthrough in the Middle East was the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt engineered at Camp David by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll rose one -- that's right, just 1 -- percentage point.

The hard reality is that foreign policy questions have little volatility in domestic politics so long as the lives of American soldiers are not at stake. This has been even more the case since the Cold War ended.

Political irrelevance

The ultimate proof of the political irrelevance of these national security issues was the experience of President George Bush, whose approval rating rose to 90 percent in the aftermath of his success in promulgating the Persian Gulf War in 1991, then vanished a year later when voters turned their attention back to their own bread-and-butter concerns.

In this campaign, polls have never found any sign of concern about international questions other than perhaps the impact of foreign trade when the controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement was at its most intense. Open-ended questions about issue priorities instead evoke the usual list of voters' concern with their jobs, taxes, education, crime, drugs and the environment.

The polls also suggest that voters need only a minimum comfort level with a president's ability to deal with foreign affairs. And Mr. Clinton, despite some missteps early in his first term, has put himself in position to claim enough credit for policy initiatives in Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East to meet that basic requirement.

TC Moreover, the Republican carping about Mr. Clinton's inability to deal with military matters because of his history as a draft evader during the Vietnam War has begun to lose even the limited relevance it might have had when he first took office.

So the bottom line politically on the Middle East summit at the White House is that, with the days dwindling down to a precious few, Clinton has controlled the national agenda for most of the week. While he has been dealing with Messrs. Arafat and Netanyahu in the eye of the national television cameras, Bob Dole has been rehearsing for Sunday's debate and flying out to Ohio to complain that President Clinton is a "liberal" who just talks like a conservative.

The Republican nominee needs to change the dynamics of the campaign in a hurry, and he won't do it by taking shots at Clinton foreign policy. The president didn't score any ten strike with his White House summit, but there's no reason to think the voters care one way or the other.

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

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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