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Candidates avoid topic of foreign policy

George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot all agree on one major point:

None of them wants to talk much about America's foreign affairs or defense policy if he can help it.

Each for his own reasons has decided that there's not much to be gained, and possibly a lot to be lost, by dealing with those subjects just now.

So instead of a serious discussion about how much America should spend on the military in a post-Cold War world, we hear how Clinton avoided the draft more than 20 years ago.

Or instead of talking about what the United States should do about arranging peace in the Middle East, we get lectures about family values or Perot's use of private investigators to check up on people.

The reasoning behind this is simple.

Bush has already taken a lot of heat for paying more attention to foreign affairs than to problems right here at home.

He may have been a much decorated Navy pilot in World War II and he may have entered the White House with some of the best foreign policy credentials of any president this century, but George Bush isn't talking much about it. With the unemployment figures still looking bad and no end in sight to the country's economic stagnation, he's not so anxious right now to deal with problems in Yugoslavia or Iraq. He's convinced that the voters wouldn't like it.

We've all heard about Clinton's lack of a military record and that his only experience overseas is a year-and-a-half in England as a Rhodes scholar. He has little to gain then by highlighting his lack of foreign affairs credentials compared to Bush, a master of the game. So again, not much about foreign and defense policy from Clinton.

As for Ross Perot, his major and almost exclusive focus has been the sorry state of the economy. Foreign affairs and defense hardly figure as issues in his campaign.

But even though this election is remarkable for its lack of extensive discussion about our most pressing national security issues, voters don't have to worry about some strange new policy being sneaked in on them through the back door.

That's because for the most part, all three candidates are in the mainstream when it comes to America's place in the world and how to maintain it.

Bush and Clinton, especially, promise no major surprises if elected president next month. Where they differ on the issues facing the world, it's in degree, not kind.

All three candidates believe the United States should keep troops in Western Europe to guard against any resurgence of militarism in the former Soviet republics. Bush would like to keep 150,000 troops there. Clinton has mentioned the figure of 100,000 and Perot has been vague.

In fact, the question of stationing American soldiers overseas is in such a state of flux now that campaign rhetoric is almost irrelevant. The dynamic of developments in the old Soviet Union, not American political promises, likely will be the determining factor.

Similar reasoning applies to statements by all three candidates that they favor extending economic help to the ex-Soviet republics to ease their transition to free-market economies. In this case, it's the health of America's economy that will determine Washington's generosity, not a campaign pledge.

There's no significant difference between the candidates on the question of negotiating peace between the Arabs and Israelis. Last spring, Clinton tried to portray himself as a better friend of Israel than Bush. That ploy evaporated when Israeli voters kicked out their old hard-line government and elected one more in line with Bush administration policies.

As of now, all three candidates support the idea that Israel should give up land it captured from Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Middle East war in exchange for peace. And all three support an interim agreement granting self-government to Palestinians in the occupied territories until a permanent solution can be achieved.

All three candidates are even more in the mainstream when it comes to defense.

President Bush has proposed a five-year defense spending program that would cost $1.43-trillion. Clinton's five-year plan calls for $60-billion less.

Sixty-billion dollars may sound like a lot of money, but it amounts to only 4 percent less than the Bush proposal, or a difference of not even 1 percent a year.

In short, Clinton is no Michael Dukakis. The Republicans will have a tough time portraying him as soft-headed ultra-liberal when it comes to defending America.

On issues such as weapons procurement, all three candidates have recognized that saving defense industry jobs can sometimes be more important than saving money. That's why none of them is advocating elimination of such controversial weapons programs as the B-2 Stealth bomber, the F-22 fighter or the Navy's Seawolf submarine.

But despite the broad agreement among the candidates on the overall framework of American foreign and defense policy, there are some significant differences worth noting.

The most striking one involves last year's Persian Gulf war.

Bush took the lead, as only an American president can, in building the coalition that expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait. If this was anybody's war, it was Bush's.

Clinton's attitude before the fighting began can best be described as ambiguous, less charitably as fence-sitting. Perot, in one of his most public and specific foreign policy stands, was flatly against the war.

As far as Perot was concerned, whoever ruled Kuwait was something for the Arabs to sort out. But despite his attitude toward the gulf war, Perot denies he is an isolationist and cites his support of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as proof of his mainstream thinking.

Another possibly far-reaching difference involves China.

Bush, a former envoy to Beijing, has been a consistent supporter of close diplomatic and economic ties with China despite its poor human-rights record and history of excluding U.S. goods from its market. The president's China policy has been so controversial that even his fellow Republicans are badly split on the issue.

Clinton has vowed that if he wins next month, China can forget about its special trade privileges unless it makes dramatic improvement in its human rights situation, curbs its weapons sales abroad and stops oppressing Tibet.

Ross Perot hasn't talked much about China but he has had a lot to say about Japan.

Perot claims that Japan has been getting a free ride from the United States on defense as well as trade questions. Among other things, he proposes limiting the number of Japanese automobile imports to the number of American cars they buy from us. He also says the Tokyo government should pay the United States $50-billion to cover the cost of American troops who defend Japan.

Predictably, Japanese officials find the prospect of a Perot presidency appalling. They also point out that Japan already pays almost all of the cost of stationing U.S. troops on its soil and that in a few years Japan's contributions will cover two-thirds of all American defense costs in Asia.

Another area where Perot has staked out an independent position is the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Bush negotiated, and of course, defends the pact creating a tariff-free zone including Canada, the United States and Mexico. So far, Clinton has been noncommittal but says he supports the idea in principal.

Perot says NAFTA could be a disaster for American manufacturing because low-wage Mexican workers will be able to steal American jobs. He also points out that NAFTA could allow Asian manufacturers to get around other controls on their commerce with the United States by setting up shop in Mexico.

One of the most interesting differences between Bush, Clinton and Perot doesn't involve big power diplomacy or defense spending, but their attitudes toward abortion.

The Bush administration's opposition to abortion may seem like a domestic issue at first, but the ideology behind it has had far-reaching international implications.

Despite mushrooming birth rates in the Third World, the Bush administration and the Reagan administration before it have blocked U.S. funding for any overseas family planning programs that don't specifically exclude abortion or abortion counseling. Under Clinton or Perot, this policy would likely change in short order.

Odd as it might seem, the next American administration's views on abortion could be as important to the world at large as its decisions on economic aid to Russia or building the B-2 Stealth bomber.