Foreign policy has been the neglected topic most of this presidential campaign, but it is not a question voters can safely overlook when they go to the polls next month. Whether they choose to or not, American presidents end up making fateful national security choices _ decisions that advance or diminish the prospects for peace in the world and safety for this country.
This is supposed to be President Bush's great strength, but there are a good many reasons why the choice is not so simple as it first appears.
Clearly, Bush has vastly more experience than his challengers, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and seemingly is much more of a known quantity. He has worked at the top level of diplomacy since he went to the United Nations two decades ago. His national security team of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell may be the strongest and smoothest-working since World War II.
Bush's experience shows. When Clinton tried last week in Milwaukee to outline a new approach to foreign policy, he was far less specific in delineating changes than Bush had been in an address to the United Nations 10 days earlier. Perot has said little about foreign policy except to remind people that he opposed the gulf war.
And yet there is a dimension of Bush's record that I find troubling. No foreign policy, however wise, can be sustained for long by the American people without a high degree of trust in the president. Confidence in Bush has been badly eroded by the lagging performance of the domestic economy _ a subject on which Bush can do little at this point but argue that Clinton might make things worse.
But Bush's trustworthiness also has been brought into question by his failure to respond candidly to the questions that have been raised about his part in the sale of arms to Iran during the Reagan administration and his policy toward Iraq in the years preceding its invasion of Kuwait.
The first is a subject on which I have written repeatedly. I return to it now because almost every week brings fresh evidence challenging Bush's contention that he was "out of the loop" and essentially passive when President Reagan made his fateful decision to trade arms for hostages. As the issue has gotten hotter, Scowcroft, the national security adviser, has felt prompted to call me and ask me to amplify the previous discussion of his comment on this subject when I questioned him about it on an Aug. 30 Meet the Press. I am happy to do so.
After citing some of the evidence that has emerged, I asked Scowcroft if he thought Bush's previous denial of any knowledge that then-Secretary of State George Shultz and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger strongly opposed the arms sale "was a truthful statement."
Scowcroft: "I think it's quite possible it was (a) truthful statement."
Broder: "Quite possible?"
Scowcroft: "I see no reason that it would not _ that is was not."
Unfortunately, there are now multiple reasons to doubt its veracity. Weinberger immediately challenged it, as we learned recently when a Shultz memo on his conversation with Weinberger became public. And both National Security Council and Israeli aides have stepped forward to say they participated in detailed briefings of Bush on the arms sale.
A similar and perhaps even stickier problem surrounds Bush's pre-Kuwait policy toward Iraq, spelled out in a speech last week by the Democratic vice presidential candidate Albert Gore Jr. Vice President Dan Quayle called Gore's claim that the U.S. government had coddled Saddam Hussein and facilitated his military buildup "nonsense," but the evidence is very strong that the Bush administration did just that _ in face of serious warnings.
Asking Bush to respond to these questions is not rummaging in the past. It is a minimal request that someone who seeks a renewed mandate take steps to restore trust in his judgment by being candid about what he did _ and even more important, what he has learned _ in these incidents.
Clinton also has questions to answer _ more, really, because of the absence of a record in foreign policy. Here are two:
He has claimed he was a supporter of the Bush decision to send forces against Hussein. But he has never challenged the accuracy of his stunningly ambivalent statement of Jan. 15, 1991: "I guess I would have voted with the majority (for authorization of hostilities) if it was a close vote. But I agree with the argument the minority made." What kind of waffling is that?
A second question: Clinton has criticized Bush for building a foreign policy "more on personal relationships with foreign leaders" than on solid principles reflecting American values.
But Clinton's pattern in domestic politics also displays a great emphasis on personal relationships. He has had an eclectic mixture of people _ from dovish McGovern-Carter advisers such as Anthony Lake to hawkish congressional Democrats such as Sam Nunn _ review his foreign policy speeches. Doesn't that suggest the likelihood of conflict _ and a good deal of dithering by an inexperienced president _ if Clinton is elected?
These are matters that cry out for discussion in the coming debates.
Washington Post Writers Group