`THINGS are really tough," my friend at the White House muttered glumly.
"Yes," I said, expecting a sad tale about the political antics of Bill Clinton, and Jerry Brown, maybe even the fading Pat Buchanan.
"You bet," said my friend. "Did you see what happened in Peru today?"
Peru? Yes, and in a string of other foreign countries where White House hands are quietly dealing with problems of consequence for the United States, although they get no mention in the current presidential election campaign.
While the Democratic contenders engage in bitter character assassination, and the Republican camp thinks foreign policy is an issue to be downplayed, an untidy world continues to demand attention and leadership from the White House.
The collapse of communism, for which many American presidents worked, and over which George Bush presided, has clearly lessened the threat of superpower nuclear confrontation. But it has not eliminated the risk of an isolated but damaging act of nuclear madness by such maverick regimes as North Korea, Libya, Iraq, or Iran. It has not resolved a string of crises among smaller countries. Although the former Soviet Union is defanged, stability has yet to come to Russia and its former empire.
So it is good that someone in the White House is quietly focusing on Peru, already riven by ugly leftist terrorism, and now overtaken by crisis as President Alberto Fujimori suspends the constitution and fills the streets with troops and tanks. Peru may not feature in the presidential campaign, but it likely will be there waiting when the campaign is over. So too will an array of other foreign problems.
Clearly, the most demanding are the travails of the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin is wrestling with his parliament over who shall wield power, and whether the tough economic reforms that have brought immediate misery but offer long-term solutions shall continue.
For President Bush, the Russian crisis has posed a dilemma. Short-term, and in the midst of a political campaign, with many Americans suffering economic hardship, it is not easy to recommend an ambitious aid program. But long-term, the stakes are high as such critics as former President Richard Nixon carp about the dangers of offering too little, too late, to keep Russia moving in a positive direction.
What other foreign policy problems are waiting in the wings?
There is North Korea, from which American evangelist Billy Graham has just returned, voicing cautious hope for improvement. But President Kim Il Sung remains one of the world's communist hard-liners with nuclear plans and ambitions.
Iraq and Iran, both of which have nuclear aspirations, are again at tension point following an Iranian air raid on a military base in Iraq used by an Iranian opposition group. Iraq has been defying United Nations demands that it dismantle some of its more threatening weapons. Iran has been vigorously extending its own armaments.
Libya alternates between threats and hints of cooperation as it continues to resist UN pressure to turn over two of its agents suspected of international terrorism. Nobody can know whether the unpredictable Col. Muammar Qaddafi will lash out, and whether the US will take reprisals.
In Cuba Fidel Castro, survivor and outmoded symbol of a passing communist era, clings to power but in so doing perhaps makes more inevitable a violent overturning rather than a peaceful transition. China faces an uncertain future as hard-liners and pragmatists wrestle for control of economic policy, a tussle that will determine whether some aspects of the free-market system will flourish.
On a different level of concern, there is the outcome of the British elections to consider, the emerging unity of Western Europe, the strains of Eastern Europe as it shrugs off years of Marxist torpor.
To be nurtured in South Africa is the delicate progression from the evil nightmare of apartheid to the dream of a multiracial state.
Even as the American election campaign progresses, the world continues to turn.