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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 1999 /28 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan? -- CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS are making life difficult for the Clinton administration in foreign policy, but that scarcely means the country is going "isolationist" or "unilateralist."

One of the few things born-again Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan is right about is that leaders of both the Democratic Party and the GOP share a "globalist" outlook. Too bad for Buchanan, most Americans support it.

There are differences of opinion, to be sure, but they don't mean, as President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, recently alleged, that Congress is dominated by "new isolationists."

When Berger charged that "in effect, they believe in a survivalist foreign policy -- build a fortified fence around America and retreat behind it," the description fit Buchanan, but not Congress or the GOP in general.

That should be definitively clear later this month when Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) makes his first major foreign policy speech. He can be expected to advocate continued U.S. leadership in the world, though more care in committing U.S. troops than Clinton has shown.

Likely as not, Berger's Oct. 21 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations was a delayed aftershock from the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which provoked an immediate tirade by Clinton. The fact is, some of the Senate's most international-minded Republicans, including Sens. Richard Lugar (Ind.) and John McCain (Ariz.), opposed the treaty.

And the person most to blame for its defeat was Clinton himself. He advocated its passage in his State of the Union speech, then all but forgot it for nine months until Republicans called a snap vote to embarrass him and Senate Democrats who were demanding a vote.

The closest Republicans have come to demonstrating "isolationism" was the House's refusal in April to back U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia, but even that -- disgraceful as it was -- could be explained at least partly as a partisan outburst of Clinton-phobia.

Republicans are fighting Clinton on foreign aid, funding for the International Monetary Fund and paying U.N. dues, but it's doubtful they would fight anything to the same extent if a GOP president were in office.

A new survey conducted by Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, for the Democratic Leadership Council, shows that Democrats are now more favorable than Republicans when it comes to military interventions for humanitarian reasons, but that scarcely argues that Republican voters are "isolationist."

In the poll, 65 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans favored U.S. involvement in crises such as Kosovo and East Timor, while 54 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats said that it's not America's responsibility get involved when U.S. vital interests are not threatened.

Asked if the U.S. is currently "too engaged" in the world's problems, 57 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats said yes.

But these results could be a function of partisanship just as much as a conviction that the U.S. should turn its back on the world.

It's become dogma among Republicans -- including Bush and McCain -- that the Clinton administration has been "incoherent" in committing U.S. troops abroad.

The presidential election offers a good chance for articulating America's next foreign policy -- if the candidates will take it.

Differences of opinion turned up in last week's Democratic foreign policy debate between Vice President Al Gore, who defended an expansive view of the U.S. role in ethnic and humanitarian crises, and former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), who argued that "vital national interests" should determine policy.

Bush is likely to take a position reasonably close to Bradley's, but it's worth noting that Bush supported the Kosovo intervention while Bradley did not.

In a Sept. 23 defense speech, Bush criticized Clinton's "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions" and said that, if elected president, he would work for an "orderly and timely" -- but "not hasty" -- U.S. withdrawal from Kosovo and Bosnia.

Whichever of the four leading presidential candidates wins in November 2000, Buchanan will accuse him of being a "globalist." And he'll be right.

And the Penn poll indicates that he'll have broad public support. Asked whether the U.S. should reduce its military commitments and "go our own way" in world affairs, only 26 percent said yes, and 70 percent said no, including 75 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans.

Where internationalists of both parties need to get busy is in convincing the public free trade is in the national interest. The Penn poll showed deep ambivalence on trade, with 45 percent of both Democrats and Republicans favoring a U.S. "leadership role in expanding world trade because it benefits the U.S. economy."

Meantime, 50 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans said the United States should "slow the trend toward globalization because it hurts American workers and drives jobs overseas."

Overall, the public emerges from the poll -- as Congress does in action -- as cautiously internationalist. It's about what you'd expect from a republic, not an empire.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA