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Media Challenges Foriegn Policy Powers

Column by Anders Hove

Over the last two weeks, President Clinton has come under intense fire for failing to articulate a firm and clear foreign policy. Criticisms have come from all quarters: Democrats and Republicans, members of Congress, State Department officials, journalists, former diplomats, and even Professor of Political Science Barry Posen ["Where's the Grand Strategy," The Boston Globe, Oct. 17]. Driving the debate have been questions regarding policy as it relates to United States intervention abroad.

Today's rapidly evolving regional firestorms pose a difficult challenge for any president who would attempt to forge popular consensus on foreign policy. If any "grand strategy" with applications for policy in Haiti or Somalia exists, it has been kept hidden. But even if there is some such strategy, can a president convince us to stick to it? Can a president then apply such a policy in a dangerous and rapidly-evolving crisis, taking all the risks entailed, and still keep the American public in line?

In the past, American presidents were able to cast major U.S. foreign policy actions as part of a firm grand strategy. The Roosevelt corollary, the fights against kaiserism and world fascism, and the Truman Doctrine were all successful in persuading the American public to "pay and price, bear any burden" to continue arduous struggles which might be extremely unpopular today. In those days, a mysterious article in Foreign Affairs, penned by an author identified only as "X", offering a vision of global "containment" could be accepted as official State Department strategy. During the Vietnam War, however, the notion that foreign policy should be left to the experts of the Eastern Establishment was destroyed. With the passing of the Wise Men, we are now left with a drifting and amateur public debate.

In this post-Cold War era, one must wonder whether any one idea can motivate foreign policy, or even mobilize public opinion. Fascism and communism are gone, and Americans are far too enlightened to subscribe to any "class of civilizations" world-view. What then, is to motivate our policies abroad?

Take Somalia. Nearly a year ago, U.S. marines landed on the beaches there in a media frenzy with the proclaimed mission of assisting the United Nations relief effort. When that mission seemed complete, much of the U.S. force returned home, only to be sent back with a new mission: making the streets of Mogadishu safe for U.N. operations. In this case, an extremely popular initial policy motive (providing humanitarian relief) was brutally twisted by the reality on the ground. As the famine drew to a close, renewed clan-fighting in the capital dragged the United States into a public opinion quagmire.

Even if the problems in Somalia resulted more from poorly thought-out details than with incorrect policy motivations, the fact remains that a popular and straightforward mission was quickly turned into a public relations disaster. Moreover, since policy makers, politicians, and journalists have all jumped into the ring to attack general U.S. policy (as opposed to specific actions), one may fairly assume that the concern lies with policy justifications rather than with operational missteps.

Critics argue that President Clinton needs to state a simple and resolute policy. Ironically, Clinton may be avoiding doing just that for fear of tying his own hands. In this era, possibly the last thing the American public will accept is a challenging, long-term foreign policy. Perhaps the changing public mood regarding the Somalia operation reflects a desire on the part of the public to see a more pragmatic, short-term foreign policy -- one in which intervention is allowed, but only so long as attaining the goals of each intervention is painless.

It is often said that leadership consists of the ability to form consensus where there is none. But leadership cannot be exercised in a vacuum. If the American public is not willing to be led, no risky, difficult, or long-term policy can remain popular when the going gets tough. Swift, powerful and successful interventions (Grenada, Panama, or Kuwait) will be popular. Long, open-ended operations (perhaps Lebanon or Somalia), if they are not immediately successful, will result in demands for pull-out, and for complete revision of policy. The implication of this is that American foreign policy will be reduced to a crisis-to-crisis crap-shoot. What American credibility still exists abroad will be destroyed.

Many of those who were so quick to criticize President Clinton last week have a clear interest in preventing this end. But rather than speaking out in favor of a specific policy, critics were quick to jump aboard the media roller-coaster earlier this month. Moreover, policy makers and members of the academic community were strangely silent during the ensuing row between Congress and the president. If this silence continues, there can be no firm U.S. stance in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, or Macedonia. The foreign policies of future administrations will rise and fall not on the basis of grand strategy, but on the whims of gadfly pundits.

Stopping this trend requires concerted and vocal action on the part of those who are inclined to take the long-range view. Print and television journalists are likely to evaluate U.S. foreign policy on the basis of pictures of, for instance, rioting macoutes driving an American destroyer out of Port-au-Prince. Instead of letting the pictures do the talking, we must present a solid case for a long-range view as it relates to each perceived setback. Only if the short-term, television-driven conventional wisdom is immediately countered by forceful argument for the larger perspective can an environment be created in which the president can actually articulate a salable policy.

President Clinton's critics can do more than just bemoan the absence of a grand strategy. They should work to stop the media's picture-driven mindset which makes any far-sighted policy impossible.