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Foreign policy blues


WASHINGTON -- George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, believes Mr. Reagan bolstered foreign policy by an act of domestic policy -- the 1981 confrontation with the air traffic controllers. Mr. Reagan warned that if the controllers struck, they would be fired. They struck. They were fired. And, says Mr. Shultz, leaders around the world noted Mr. Reagan's forcefulness.

Now leaders may have drawn some conclusions from President Clinton's domestic difficulties, may have noted his self-absorption, his willingness to sacrifice anyone and anything to his short-term calculations of personal convenience, his inattention to anything (including everything in foreign policy) unrelated to opinion polls that regulate his constant campaigning.

But America's holiday from history is ending. And if the 2000 election brings a revolt of the grown-ups, foreign policy will again be part of America's political argument. Consider some problems awaiting Mr. Clinton's successor.

U.S. intelligence agencies often are the last to learn things. They consistently exaggerated the size of the Soviet economy. In 1986, the CIA wrongly said per capita production was larger in East Germany than in West Germany. In 1990 the CIA wrongly suggested that per capita milk production was higher in the Soviet Union than in America, and that meat output was about what it had been in America in 1960. And so on.

Now North Korea's missile testing has demonstrated that the intelligence community was mistaken in projecting as recently as 1997 that it would be a decade or so before rogue nations acquired ballistic missiles capable of striking the continental United States.

Mr. Clinton's pledge to deploy missile defenses is tardy and probably tendentious, given his reverence for the ABM Treaty, signed 27 years ago with the former Soviet Union. Mr. Clinton's budget cuts next year's spending on missile defense.

North Korea's mysterious government, whose intentions U.S. policy-makers must decipher, is shredding the 1994 arms control agreement -- farcical even by the low standards of arms control -- by which U.S. officials pretended to arrest North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, North Koreans, by the scores of thousands, die of starvation.

Iraq, richer and more technologically sophisticated than North Korea, poses an even more clear and present danger, particularly given the tendency of economic sanctions to become more porous as they are protracted. Iran, too, shops for scientific help from Russia.

Russia's Gross Domestic Product as published (there also is a vast underground economy) is imploding; it is now the size of Denmark's. The Economist magazine reports that the inflation rate may reach 100 percent if the government prints money to pay overdue wages. (For a year, teachers have not been paid their $20 a month.)

The population of the world's sixth most populous nation is shrinking by 800,000 a year. Public health indexes, from epidemic diseases to declining adult life expectancy, are approaching those in sub-Saharan Africa.

In April in Washington, NATO's 50th birthday will be commemorated with festivities. Or perhaps with a wake. NATO has been a huge success: The Cold War ended without war between the principal adversaries. But now Kosovo -- actually, Serbia's President Milosevic -- threatens to make NATO seem superannuated. If Mr. Milosevic refuses to allow NATO troops in Kosovo, and NATO responds with bombing that is impressive both in its precision and its futility, the question will be: Against what sort of threat is NATO's collective self-defense now pertinent?

If Europe's Kosovo wound is cauterized, U.S. troops will be involved, and the services' personnel retention problems may be exacerbated.

Finally, Mr. Clinton's nine-day grovel through China last year has emboldened Beijing, which is deploying missiles to intimidate 21 million Taiwanese. A U.S. policy, that of avoiding a choice between a multiparty democracy and those who would extinguish it, may be collapsing.

Ominous developments proliferate, yet Republicans, befuddled by Mr. Clinton's kleptomania concerning their domestic issues, wonder what they should talk about. It makes you wonder about Republicans.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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