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Top Non-Issue in San Diego: US Policy on Rest of World

Amid the talk about taxes, welfare, abortion, and the rest, one subject has been noticeably absent at this week's Republican convention - the rest of the world.

Barring war, foreign policy is usually the orphan issue of American politics. But even by this standard, discussion of the world beyond US shores has been decidedly understated.

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The exception was a speech by former President George Bush, a man often criticized for his failure to place enough emphasis on domestic issues. Characteristically, Mr. Bush devoted much of his short address to a review of the foreign policy triumphs of his administration, from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union to the triumph in the Gulf war.

But even this speech drew applause from convention-goers only when Bush echoed a favorite theme of the neo-isolationist Republican maverick, Pat Buchanan - opposition to putting US troops under United Nations command.

"I would like to tell you that [foreign policy] is a huge and important issue," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, an adviser to Republican nominee Bob Dole on foreign and security issues. Unfortunately, the senator continues, "with the end of the cold war, many Americans feel a sense of complacency."

Despite the lack of interest in the subject on the convention floor, some Republicans see foreign policy as an arena in which they can score points against President Clinton.

At a forum convened here, four former Republican secretaries of State assailed the Clinton administration for lacking a coherent vision of American interests and for incompetent pursuit of what little policy it does have.

The strong American leadership of the Reagan and Bush eras has been replaced by weakness and a reluctance to deploy American power, say the doyens of the Republican foreign policy establishment.

"We have lost the respect of the world over the last four years," says Lawrence Eagleburger, who served in the Bush administration.

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"Present foreign policy has no sense of direction," intones Henry Kissinger. "It is guided by the values of the [1960s antiwar] protest movement ... that rejects the role of power."

Witness the White House China policy

The Republican foreign policy experts point to China as an example of the Clinton administration's failures. They accuse the administration of failing to understand China's strategic importance and putting human rights concerns above all other issues.

Republican critics say that approach is characteristic of an "ad hoc" foreign policy, lacking any coherent conceptual framework to unify its actions.

"You end up in the rather bizarre situation where in one place in the world, North Korea, you are paying for nuclear reactors so they can build them, and in another part of the world with an outlaw nation, Iran, you're trying to prevent them from building nuclear reactors," says Senator McCain.

But even Republican strategists acknowledge that the Clinton administration has gained standing for an improved handling of foreign policy in the latter half of its term. The White House is credited with a successful deployment of troops to enforce democratic rule in Haiti, the advance of the Middle East peace process, and the negotiation of the Dayton accord to end the war in Bosnia.

Defining the differences

Mr. Clinton's relatively better record has "taken that issue out of the Republican arsenal," says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and author of a proposed Republican foreign policy doctrine published recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Mr. Dole has made some attempts during the campaign to try to define his foreign policy differences with Clinton. An early speech on Asia sharply attacked Clinton's policy toward China. A more recent address called for a rapid expansion of the NATO alliance to include former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

Dole and other Republicans have been critical, as well, of the administration's handling of US-Russia relations, charging that Clinton supported Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the expense of other interests.

"The Clinton administration has pursued an accommodationist and misguided policy toward Moscow," the Republican platform says. It accuses the administration of "passivity" in the face of Russian attempts to dominate the countries of the former Soviet Union as well as of Russian violations of arms-control treaties.

The platform backs Dole's calls for increased defense spending, including buildup of a defense system against ballistic-missile attacks. Using language that echoes the cold-war-era, the document declares: "Communist China has mocked our vulnerability by threatening to attack Los Angeles if we stand by our historic commitment to the Republic of China on Taiwan."

The platform also calls for continued development of nuclear weapons and their testing, opposing the Clinton administration's proposal for a comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty.

*Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this article.

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