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The Political Interest

A Distinction Wiithout A Difference

[TIME Magazine]

Dole Screams About Clinton's Foreign Policy, But His Own Is Anemic--At Best

By Michael Kramer

(TIME, October 14) -- What do you do when you're running for president and nothing's working? You try something else. So there was Bob Dole last week flailing at Bill Clinton's foreign policy--an issue of minimal resonance for voters more concerned about interest rates than Israel. To earlier charges that Clinton's foreign policy is "weak, indecisive, incoherent, inconsistent, vacillating, scattershot and self-contradictory," Dole added "rudderless and illusory," and said it's a product of "neglect, posturing, concessions and false triumphs ... a string of failures dressed up for television as victories." On Clinton's watch, Dole concluded, "This is not foreign relations; it is public relations."

So what would Dole do instead? Well, that's the problem. Dole is heavy on critique but light on prescription; his wisdom rarely rises beyond a mush of content-free bromides. "I will pursue a strategy for success," he pledged. "We must define our interests and assume full responsibility to protect and promote [them] ... We will stand by our allies and nurture coalitions. We will keep our promises." And so on.

This, of course, is not a foreign policy worthy of the term, or even good public relations. It bespeaks a lack of seriousness, and it squanders a chance. The differences between Dole and Clinton when they look abroad are not "vast and fundamental," as Dole claims, but there are some worth noting.

On Bosnia, for example, Dole has long favored arming the Muslims to level the killing fields. Clinton's supported that too, but only rhetorically--a failure that could cause U.S. troops to remain there until the peace is finally secured, which may mean indefinitely.

Dole differs from Clinton on the question of expanding NATO too. Dole wants the alliance to admit Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic by 1998, a quicker timetable than the President deems prudent, given Russia's opposition. But Dole goes even further. He also wants the Baltic states in NATO, a step guaranteed to worsen U.S. relations with Moscow. This is a debate worth having, but don't hold your breath. In the current campaign's game of charge and countercharge, sober discussion has taken a back seat.

Elsewhere in the disorderly world, however, Dole's muscular denunciation of Clinton's record collapses when he attempts to explain what exactly he would change.

China, says Dole, should "play by the rules" and not "threaten its neighbors." We should "prioritize our interests and communicate our priorities to the Chinese leadership." The U.S. should never ignore Chinese misbehavior, says Dole, but like Clinton, he views the idea of denying Beijing most-favored-nation trading status as counterproductive. At bottom, Dole's China policy is Clinton's: stay calm, hope for the best and pray that China's succession struggle goes well.

Dole sees Russia as "all too willing to repeat old patterns, challenging the interest of America and the West." He blasts Clinton's "misguided romanticism" about Russia, but aside from pushing NATO expansion, he too recoils from a hard line for fear it could aid Boris Yeltsin's revanchist enemies.

Dole doesn't like the course of Haiti's shaky democracy, the fragility of what passes for peace in Northern Ireland, or whatever it is that North Korea and Cuba are up to. But neither does anyone else, including Clinton, and Dole is again unsatisfying when one seeks coherent alternatives to the President's approaches. The pattern is obvious: Dole opposes Clinton's policies because they are Clinton's policies--and offers virtually nothing realistic in the way of responsible options.

As regards the two most recent foreign policy crises, Dole's performance has been uninspiring and, given his own record, even shameless. On Iraq, Dole blames Clinton for Saddam Hussein's harassment of the Kurds. What Dole avoids is his own history of placing parochial politics before the national interest. Consider only one example: in 1990, after Saddam had gassed 5,000 Kurds and was threatening his neighbors, Dole thought first and exclusively about his farmer constituents. He was one of the few Senators who urged that Baghdad not be punished with trade sanctions for its brutality, a stance that caused his Kansas Republican colleague, Senator Nancy Kassebaum, to say she could "not believe that any [American] farmer would want to send his product ... to a country that has used chemical weapons and has tortured its children."

And last week, after Clinton valiantly tried to jump-start talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Dole rushed to denounce the President for the failure to reach any substantial agreement. From the sidelines Dole criticized Clinton's "photo-op foreign policy." And then (you guessed it) Dole jetted in from the campaign trail for a 15-minute photo-op of his own with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Afterward, Dole served up this not so penetrating insight: "The most important objective ... is to end the violence. We can stand clearly in support of [the] peaceful resolution of differences," but "the U.S. cannot impose a solution."

In the past, Dole has been eloquent about the need for a bipartisan foreign policy--and last fall told me that "sometimes the best thing to do if you have the nation's interests in mind is to shut up." Now that's advice worth considering.

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