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Beyond the water's edge: foreign policy as an election issue.

In almost every presidential election since World War II, differences between the two parties on major foreign-policy issues have played an important, if not decisive, role in determining the outcome. But through much of this year's campaign, most Americans have seemed uninterested in serious debate on foreign policy. The persistence of economic problems at home and the virtual elimination of the Soviet military threat have diverted attention from foreign affairs and toward solving our own domestic problems. Voters are preoccupied by the huge federal budget deficit, the lingering effects of the recession, slow economic growth, high unemployment, rising crime, and welfare dependence.

Nonetheless, it would be a tremendous mistake for Americans to become so self-absorbed that we fail to consider the security issues that still confront the United States as well as the challenges entailed in our role as the only superpower. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the repudiation of Communist ideology have been a decisive victory for the foreign policy Americans have endorsed through their choice of presidents in the postwar era. It would be high irony if voters in 1992 squandered that achievement by failing to inquire of candidates how they would safeguard the fruits of that victory if elected.

A Still Dangerous World

Soviet Communism's collapse, unfortunately, has not produced world peace. Most conflicts--even in this century--have been motivated not by ideology, as the Cold War was, but by a desire for territory or for racial, ethnic, or religious domination. Such conflicts, even when they appear to be isolated to a specific country or region, have a history of spreading beyond their original boundaries (witness the progress of World War I). The situation in the Balkans is only the most recent example of a seemingly local conflict that cannot be contained.

Already two million people have lost their homes in the former Yugoslav republic, and many are fleeing into neighboring countries. Germany, already taxed with its own domestic difficulties in integrating the former East German population and economy, now faces additional burdens in caring for hundreds of thousands of Balkan refugees. Countries as far away as Great Britain and Scandinavia are being asked to provide temporary haven for refugees. The United States cannot remain aloof from these problems, and pressure is mounting daily for direct U.S. involvement. While U.S. security interests are not directly at stake in the Balkans, there is no guarantee that humanitarian concerns or the interests of one or more of our allies might not prompt some sort of U.S. military intervention.

Nor is Yugoslavia the only place where the disintegration of Communist control has led to the outbreak of ethnic or religious violence. Thousands of deaths have occurred in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and other former Soviet republics. More important, the friction between Russia and Ukraine and the potential for some future armed conflict involving tactical nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction makes relations between these historic rivals of considerable concern to the United States. Indeed, Russia's centuries-long imperialist ambitions and territorial acquisitions make many of her neighbors and some in the international community wary, despite the encouraging embrace of democratic principles by President Yeltsin and a majority of the Russian people.

The Middle East, too, is still a tinderbox. Saddam Hussein continues his belligerent defiance of United Nations resolutions that ended the Gulf War. Fighting goes on in Lebanon, and Americans remain potential targets of terrorist kidnappers who still operate out of southern Lebanon. The Arab-Israeli conflict, too, poses great risks for the United States. By becoming virtual mediators in the ongoing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the United States has raised its own stakes in the outcome and mutual adherence to any agreements reached. The Middle East remains of vital strategic interest to the United States-- indeed to the entire industrialized world. While some opponents of the Gulf War mocked the willingness to risk American lives to protect oil, safeguarding U.S. access to oil in the Middle East is a legitimate security interest. Perhaps no other region of the world has greater potential to affect the U.S. economy and our way of life.

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Nor is the current volatility of certain regions the only cause for concern. Even if conditions were more peaceful, there is no guarantee that they would remain so. It is simply impossible to know what lies ahead, for good or ill. Who could have predicted in 1988 that before the next presidential election the Soviet empire would collapse, U.S. troops would engage in a war in the Middle East, and fighting would erupt in Europe with thousands dead? With the exception of the years immediately following World War II, never has such great change taken place in so few years-- and with as little warning. Yet many Americans seem almost indifferent to the importance of these events or to have forgotten them completely. Part of the problem lies in the strange reluctance of American political leaders to take credit for the role U.S. policy actually played in the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Conventional wisdom now asserts that the Soviet Union's demise was inevitable--but that was far from clear a few short years ago. In fact, the 1970s and early 1980s saw the expansion of Soviet influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as an enormous Soviet military buildup that threatened to tilt the strategic balance of power toward the Soviet Union. It was the United States's response to that buildup--and especially the Reagan administration's more than $2 trillion investment in rebuilding and modernizing our own defenses--that helped provoke the economic crisis in the Soviet Union, which was unable to sustain its own bloated defense investment. That economic crisis, in turn, was a major component in the eventual downfall of the Communist regime.

Ironically, many of those who vigorously criticized U.S. efforts to strengthen and modernize our own defenses now want to ignore the decisive role a strong U.S. defense played in forcing the Soviets' hand. These same critics are among the first and most vociferous proponents of a rapid downsizing of the military and a withdrawal of American troops from around the world. While a downsizing is certainly possible and desirable given the diminished nuclear threat, it must be managed carefully, with an eye toward the dangers that still lurk in such places as North Korea. The greatest danger to the United States lies in our being unprepared to meet a foreign challenge. Isolationism, while tempting in domestic economic hard times, will not prevent the United States from becoming entangled in foreign conflicts--a lesson we have surely learned after two disastrous world wars.

Democrats vs. Republicans

Elections give voters the opportunity to voice their own policy preferences. Unfortunately, personality dwarfs policy in all too many campaigns, a situation that has gotten worse in the TV era. Candidates themselves often try to avoid making clear their own positions on issues, content simply to attack their opponents' positions and character rather than to define their own. Moreover, the electorate has grown increasingly doubtful that anything candidates say during an election can be trusted. Nevertheless, voters can and should scrutinize a candidate's own history, statements, and, in the case of an incumbent, record--but voters shouldn't ignore party affiliation, either. Many voters, especially those with higher education, prefer to define themselves as independents; and even among those who identify themselves as Republican or Democrat, many claim to vote for the candidate, not the party. Party loyalty among elected officials in the United States is much less intense than it is in Europe and elsewhere, especially in parliamentary systems.

Yet party affiliation is important in defining candidates, especially at the presidential level, where a candidate's election translates into control of several thousand policy-making and related confidential positions. In the day-to-day management of government, these political appointees wield enormous influence; and many, if not most, of them will come from the ranks of party loyalists. In President Bush's first term, most of the senior-level political appointees had served in the Reagan, Ford, or Nixon administrations. If Governor Clinton is elected, expect to see familiar faces from the Carter years, and perhaps even a few old hands from the Johnson administration.

The foreign policy reputations of the two parties have benefitted Republican presidential candidates since 1972, when the Democratic Party's nominee, George McGovern, earned for the Democrats the designation as the more dovish party. Democrats became identified in voters' minds not only with opposition to the Vietnam War but with a general reluctance to use force or promote a strong defense. Although Jimmy Carter managed to avoid being painted as a McGovernite in the 1976 campaign, by 1980 he, too, became vulnerable to the same criticisms. President Carter's defense-spending cuts, his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, and the failed hostage-rescue attempt combined to make Carter look weak on defense and ineffective in foreign policy, which added to voters' perception that the Democrats were not as capable in handling foreign affairs. Carter himself was tarnished by this image in his bid for reelection in 1980, as were Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in their bids in 1984 and 1988.

Bush and Clinton

Governor Clinton has made an aggressive effort to avoid being labeled as weak on defense. He supported, albeit with some ambivalence, the president's decision to use force in the Persian Gulf--even though most Democrats in Congress did not--and he has even suggested recently using U.S. military force in Bosnia- Hercegovina to protect UN forces delivering humanitarian aid. What is more, he has been careful in his speeches to address voters' wariness that electing a Democrat automatically will mean a weakened defense system; instead, he promises "a strong America--strong in arms, strong in values, strong in wealth, strong in will." Despite such reassuring rhetoric, Governor Clinton will have to do a better job of explaining how he is going to finance his ambitious domestic proposals without deeper cuts in defense spending than the $116 billion he has already proposed or without raising taxes on more than simply the 2 percent of the population earning in excess of $200,000. Clinton's rhetoric on Yugoslavia also raises the worry that the Democratic Party may be moving from the extreme of reflexive anti-interventionism to the extreme of reckless interventionism--of the sort that led John F. Kennedy to send troops to Vietnam without first having thought through how we would pull them out.

President Bush, on the other hand, faces a different set of problems. Although Republicans generally are perceived as strong on defense--and certainly his record in both Panama and the Persian Gulf demonstrate his willingness to use force to protect U.S. interests--the president has been less successful in articulating how he defines the U.S. role in a post-Cold War era. While Bush led the Free World to final victory in the Cold War, and has been a true visionary in proposing the Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, the weak domestic economy has made it difficult for the president to propose a leadership role for the United States in helping rebuild the economies of Russia, Ukraine, the other former Soviet republics, and Eastern Europe.

Bush's claim that the long nuclear nightmare is over is curiously at odds with his own embrace of the Strategic Defense Initiative and his efforts to deprive Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction.The president also seems to be tying his own hands in foreign affairs by relying so heavily on the United Nations as the almost-exclusive forum to settle disputes. Many people still remember it as a body dominated by Third-World countries hostile to the United States, and may be less enthusiastic than the president in relying on the United Nations to determine when the United States will act.

Controllers of the Purse Strings

It is equally important for voters to consider foreign policy in congressional races. No matter which candidate wins the presidential race, he will have to contend with a Congress that increasingly flexes its own foreign-policy muscle. The appropriations process was used by Congress throughout the Reagan administration to control foreign policy, most notoriously through a series of amendments that restricted even indirect governmental assistance to the Contras. President Bush narrowly avoided a confrontation with Congress over the use of force in the Persian Gulf when Congress approved the War Resolution by a vote of 52 to 47 in the Senate, and 250 to 182 in the House. Despite pledges from members of Congress that partisan politics stops at the water's edge, recent history doesn't bear them out. The Persian Gulf vote--with important exceptions--fell significantly along party lines, with only 86 Democrats in the House and 10 in the Senate voting with the president, and even fewer Republicans, three in the House and two in the Senate, voting against him.

Congress can attempt to influence the conduct of foreign affairs, but its real strength is in the power of the purse strings to control defense spending. Congressional Democrats--again with some exceptions--are eager for deep cuts in defense, with which they hope to finance new social spending programs and increases in education and other domestic areas. But Republicans, too, want to reduce defense spending, although the president's proposals offer a more modest $50 billion cut. As important as the actual dollar reduction is, the most important issue is the criteria for determining what gets cut and what gets saved. While Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has been successful in closing or down-sizing over 200 military bases since 1988, his chief opponents have been those members of Congress who represent the districts in which the bases were located. In most cases, jobs back home--not the country's national defense needs--were uppermost on members' minds. Pork-barrel defense reared its head when President Bush pledged to rebuild Florida's Homestead Air Force Base after Hurricane Andrew, and also during the Democratic presidential primaries this year in Connecticut, when Bill Clinton pledged to continue construction of the Seawolf-class submarine, slated for extinction under the Bush administration's proposals. The way the issue was eventually framed in Congress was not whether the Seawolf was necessary, but how many Connecticut jobs would be lost. Voters in congressional races need to ask themselves: do they want defense cuts based on security needs or on job protection?

A New Isolationism?

A significant portion of voters in both parties this year have backed candidates who ran isolationist campaigns: Pat Buchanan in the Republican Party and, most prominently, Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party. No doubt, many of these voters were simply venting their frustration at the state of the domestic economy; nonetheless, a stubborn streak of isolationism runs through the history of the United States. When isolationist tendencies have prevailed as national policy, it has been to the detriment of the country--and the world. Ironically, strong isolationist sentiment has rarely kept the United States out of foreign conflicts; it has simply delayed our entry, as it did in World War II. More important, isolationism gave us a false sense of security, which proved disastrous when we were caught unprepared.

It is encouraging that neither presidential candidate espouses isolationist views, but whoever wins will have to contend with those in his respective party who want to see the United States retreat from the world stage. The temptation will be to "take care of problems at home first," as scores of voters resentfully put it when interviewed about such issues as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the civil war and starvation in Somalia. Some Democrats in Congress will continue to push for protectionist trade legislation, and some Republicans may push for tighter immigration control.

The defeat of Soviet Communism is the great victory of the last half-century. Americans have paid dearly to defeat Communism in lives lost in battle in Korea and Vietnam and in the trillions of dollars spent on defense. We have every reason to feel that we have carried our load long enough. But the test of a great nation, as it is of an individual, is the willingness to accept responsibility so long as there remains work to be done. Liberty is on the ascendancy around the world, but it still eludes the 1.3 billion people in China--one-fifth of the world's population. In our own hemisphere, one of the world's last remaining totalitarian regimes still holds the Cuban people in its grip. For more than a decade, a new form of totalitarianism based on a perversion of religious rather than political philosophy has threatened the stability of the Moslem world from Iran to Algeria. Africa is beset by problems stemming from civil war, the failed policies of socialism, inter-ethnic conflict, and drought. While the United States cannot, and should not, intervene in all of these situations, neither can we withdraw into our own safe and secure fortress nation. We have stood for more than 200 years as a beacon of freedom to the world. Our involvement in foreign affairs in this century has been, on balance, to the great benefit of those seeking to be free. If we are to be faithful to our principles, we must remain engaged in world affairs. But that commitment can only be made with the support of the American people.
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Title Annotation:post-cold War foreign relations
Author:Chavez, Linda
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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