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The President Abroad

GEORGE BUSH lost the 1992 election in part because he didn't fully appreciate that the United States needs more than just a foreign-policy president.

Halfway through his term, Bill Clinton is realizing that the country needs more than just a domestic-policy president, and that, in fact, if a president doesn't get foreign affairs right, he may not get to be a domestic-policy president at all.

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Now President Clinton, traveling in the Middle East, is seen to be something of a foreign-policy roll.

The intervention in Haiti is going as well as anyone could have hoped. The nuclear deal with North Korea will have to prove itself - many issues have been merely ``kicked down the road,'' in the current phrase - but the situation there is palpably calmer. Mr. Clinton responded decisively to troop movements in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein pulled back. Progress is even being made in Northern Ireland.

Now comes this trip to the Middle East for the signing of an Israeli-Jordanian treaty and a visit to Syria. Two weeks before midterm elections seen as a referendum on his administration, a trip abroad is a good way for Clinton to look presidential. His approval ratings may improve in a way that may translate into more Democratic seats in Congress. And a trip abroad may be more useful than campaign swings through the heartland, where his presence, it must be said, isn't particularly desired anyway.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, Clinton is surely mindful of building on the work of his predecessors; but the Syrian leg of his trip does have the air of a bold move on his part.

Nonetheless, a string of foreign-policy successes does not constitute an articulated foreign policy. Clinton has proved that he can speak movingly on foreign affairs, in his April 1993 speech making the case for American interest in aid to Russia, for instance. But he has not yet crystallized his disparate values - peace, human rights - into a coherent view of America's role in the world. This would be important to any presidency, and is crucially so at a time of such global transition.

Let's hope that his recent successes abroad encourage President Clinton to construct and impart a comprehensive foreign policy.

The world is waiting.

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