Global Warnings

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For one brief moment earlier this month, it seemed that foreign affairs might actually matter in the U.S. presidential campaign. Yugoslavia was roiled by revolution. International financial markets were tanking. Arab-Israeli tensions in the Middle East imploded. Terrorists attacked a U.S. warship. Surely voters would demand to know how Al Gore and George W. Bush would handle such crises as president and commander in chief.

Think again. During last week's 90-minute debate in St. Louis, Mo., the candidates were asked a total of two questions about foreign policy. Don't blame Jim Lehrer: Of the 130 questions submitted by the audience of uncommitted voters, only 12 concerned foreign or defense policy. That isn't surprising. Foreign affairs has not played a decisive role since 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated a Jimmy Carter crippled by the Iranian hostage crisis. Bush père believed his handling of the Gulf War would prove a trump card, only to find it was the economy, stupid. Although presidents wield far more influence over the country's foreign policy than they do over domestic issues, voters don't like to hear much about events abroad — and candidates tend to flatter their indifference.

This year, that trend is especially unfortunate because the differences between Gore and Bush on many aspects of foreign policy deserve scrutiny. Gore, thanks to his service in Congress and the White House, has two decades of international policy experience. His expertise, particularly on arms control, was a principal reason he ended up on the Democratic ticket in 1992. As vice president, Gore became one of the administration's most forceful and trusted foreign policy voices. Bush's ignorance on world affairs provided endless late-night joke material early in the campaign, and his diplomatic experience has been limited mainly to his meetings as governor of Texas with Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. But so far the expertise advantage has done little to boost Gore's prospects. Bush has recovered from his early stumbles. In the second debate, when Lehrer pressed both candidates on how the U.S. should conduct itself in the world, Bush managed to sound credible when discussing global hot spots like the Middle East, Russia and East Timor.

But even if the two candidates' foreign policy résumés seem not to matter on the stump, doesn't experience determine a president's success as commander in chief? Not necessarily. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were considered foreign policy neophytes before they took office, and both proved to be resolute world leaders. Even Bill Clinton — who in 1992 practically boasted about his lack of interest in international affairs — turned into an unapologetic globalist, visiting more countries than any other president in history.

So the disparity in the candidates' records is less significant than the differences in their views. Both support open markets in principle, but Bush is the more evangelical free trader: He pushed hard earlier this year for congressional passage of a bill to normalize trade relations with China, while Gore remained reticent to avoid alienating his labor and environmentalist supporters. Yet Bush and his advisers also denounce the administration for pursuing a "strategic partnership" with Beijing and for being too friendly with a corrupt and ruthless Russian government. Gore says he would negotiate with Moscow on changes to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to allow the U.S. to build a limited missile-defense system; Bush says he is willing to scrap the ABM treaty, rapidly develop a missile shield and make unilateral arms reductions.

Where Bush and Gore present a real choice is on the more abstract, but more vital, questions surrounding the nature of American power and how to use it. Gore has outlined a robust foreign policy driven as much by morality as strategic self-interest. "Our national interest should be defined in terms of our values," he says. Gore and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, have long been among the country's most hawkish Democrats. Both defied their party to support the Gulf War, and both lobbied Clinton for swifter intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. Gore's doctrine of "forward engagement" extends beyond problems that bend to military action. He identifies social maladies around the world, from AIDS in Africa to poor prenatal care in developing nations, as potential security threats that require American engagement.

Bush and his team of advisers — many of them members of the Reagan-Bush foreign policy brain trust — dismiss the significance of what Gore calls the "new strategic agenda" and take a dim view of the efficacy of U.S. interventions. Bush adheres closely to the doctrine articulated by Colin Powell, his favored future secretary of state: military interventions "need to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear and the exit strategy obvious." Local conflicts are better left to regional powers. Bush considers the Clinton-Gore deployments in Haiti and Somalia ill-advised attempts at "nation building" and says the bombing campaigns over Kosovo and Iraq were halfhearted. Though Bush does not advocate isolation from the world's conflicts — and stresses America's commitments to its European and Asian allies — his philosophy suggests he would be, at best, a reluctant interventionist. "We can't be all things to all people in the world," he said in the second debate. "I'm worried about overcommitting our military."

On its face, Bush's realism might seem a more prudent application of U.S. resources than Gore's crusading interventionism. But the messiness of the global scene requires active, consistent American leadership — which is impossible if the U.S. insists simply on staying at home. In that sense, Gore's assertive policy appears more appropriate in the current environment, in which U.S. security faces no grave challenges, but regional flare-ups can still become destabilizing conflagrations. It's not surprising that Bush has struggled to remain consistent. He says stability in "our own hemisphere" would be among his four top foreign policy priorities, yet he faults the administration for stepping into Haiti; he argues that purely humanitarian missions do not warrant U.S. military involvement — but he defends his father's humanitarian intervention in Somalia. And while Bush opposed congressional Republican efforts to mandate early U.S. withdrawal from the Balkans, his top foreign policy adviser made clear last week he plans to pull U.S. peacekeeping troops out of there. More egregiously, he said during the second debate, "I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia." But they already are. U.S. forces account for just 4,500 of the 20,000 peacekeepers in Bosnia.

Gore didn't pounce on that gaffe to embarrass Bush, and he probably won't trumpet his foreign policy credentials in the homestretch. That's partly a bow to public passivity, and perhaps an acknowledgment that the proper course for U.S. foreign policy is anything but clear. Besides, voters are known to punish candidates who purport to know too much. Late in the 1992 campaign, President Bush ridiculed the expertise of Clinton and Gore. "My dog Millie," he said, "knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos." The bozos won.

— Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/Washington