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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Clinton's Pain Hasn't Hurt Foreign Policy

January 28, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — The conventional wisdom is that America's world leadership role is in danger of being crippled by the furor over whether President Clinton had an affair with a young woman named Monica S. Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about it.

"Farewell, [Secretary of State] Madeleine [Albright], hello Monica, goodbye foreign policy," writes columnist Thomas I. Friedman in the New York Times.

The president's defenders offer their own version of the same line. "The damage to this presidency overseas is already clear," mourned one administration official to this newspaper over the weekend.

Don't believe this glib argument. You can make a case that, in some ways, exactly the reverse is true. Strange as it may sound, Clinton's personal woes don't really hurt, and in fact actually help, the foreign policy he and the rest of Washington are trying to conduct.

Why? Because Clinton is serving the same role now that he has played in the United States ever since his 1992 presidential campaign. He is the great flak-catcher who diverts the American public from questioning or opposing the U.S. role in the world, its extensive overseas alliances, troop deployments and commitments.

All of the passions of American society--all of the venom, the hatreds, the conspiracy theories--are being deflected onto Clinton's personal life and away from other issues. Clinton may lurch from supposed scandal to supposed scandal, but his policies sail forward.

Look at the current state of affairs. America is riveted to the Lewinsky drama. Meanwhile, with remarkably little grass-roots interest, the Senate is about to give its final approval to the expansion of NATO--thus preserving America's security role in Europe after the end of the Cold War and beginning the extension of major new commitments to Eastern Europe.

Nor is NATO expansion an isolated example. During the last two years, the Clinton administration reaffirmed and extended its security alliance with Japan. America will keep its troops and bases there. The dynamics were the same as for NATO: an alliance designed for the Cold War has been extended after its original justification--the Soviet Union--disappeared.

So too with America's role in the world economy. The United States has been moving toward an ever-deeper role in helping to bail out East Asia. There is no public outcry. When the administration talks of bombing Iraq, Republican leaders quickly announce their support.

If you look at history, this lack of opposition to America's overseas commitments is amazing. The United States is a nation that nearly stayed out of World War I, refused to join the League of Nations in that epic struggle's aftermath and became involved in World War II only after Pearl Harbor.

America then stayed involved overseas largely because of the Soviet threat. After the Cold War's end, one might have predicted that there would be some huge political push, particularly from the right wing, to bring the troops home. It hasn't happened.

This is not to say there is no public debate on these issues. There is. One of the main reasons Albright was brought in as secretary of State was for her ability to communicate with the public. There are also articulate critics, both of NATO expansion and America's security role in Asia.

Yet all of these debates take place within a relatively narrow world, one made up of Americans who are already interested in foreign policy. They do not get the country's juices flowing.

Things could be different. Imagine Rush Limbaugh and other talk-show hosts inciting passions night after night on the question of why America should defend Hungary against Slovakia, or why we should come to the aid of banks that loaned money recklessly in Asia. Instead, everyone is focused on Clinton's personal life.

But please, you say: Should we really expect that the American public will ever pay attention to such esoteric issues as NATO expansion or U.S. troops in Japan?

Yet this anticipation of apathy is itself a reflection of the current mood. During the Cold War, foreign policy was linked to intense passions inside America.

Think of the "red scare" during the 1950s. Back then, the question of the day was, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Now, by contrast, the question is whether the president did or didn't have an affair.

Ultimately, the notion that Clinton will be hobbled on the world stage rests upon the idea that his foreign policy needs public support. That's an understandable assumption, but one of limited value. In fact, what often counts is not so much lining up public support as defusing any active, determined opposition.

In that respect, Clinton has been wildly successful. When historians look back at his presidency 50 years from now, they will see that he managed quietly and skillfully to extend America's alliances, bases and troop deployments in Europe and Asia well after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Whatever else he may have done, Clinton has proved that this country is preoccupied with sex. Whatever Clinton's future, he has for a time given Americans a subject--himself--about which to engage in heavy breathing.

Meanwhile, the diverting circus of Clinton's presidency has made easy what might once have seemed hard: the perpetuation of America's international role in the world after the end of the Cold War.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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