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LACK OF COHERENT FOREIGN POLICY MAY EVENTUALLY PLAGUE GOP

SHARE LACK OF COHERENT FOREIGN POLICY MAY EVENTUALLY PLAGUE GOP

WATCHING THE REPUBLICAN primary campaign reminds me of something that I've been feeling for some time now: The Republicans have no foreign policy.

During the first two years of the Clinton administration, the fact that the Republicans didn't have a foreign policy was neither apparent nor for them very important. Life was easy for Republican foreign policy mavens and presidential candidates. All they had to say were three little words - "Clinton Foreign Policy" - and everybody laughed, as if it were a self-evident joke, which at times it was.But lately, Clinton, in his own zigzagging style, has notched enough foreign policy successes - in Bosnia, North Korea, Haiti, Mexico and the Middle East - that the Republicans can no longer get away with three little words.

But now that the Republicans need to posit a coherent, intellectually serious alternative foreign policy vision, they have none. It is obvious that the whole framework for Republican foreign policy - the Cold War - has collapsed and that the Republican candidates have no new vision to unite them. They can no longer just get by with saying they are tougher on the Soviets than the Democrats.

So they have splintered. There is the Dole-Lugar-Forbes school, which basically endorses the same internationalist-occasional-use-of-force foreign policy that Clinton is now implementing. There is the Jesse Helms-Pat Buchanan school, which advocates a blend of isolationism and nostalgia for the Cold War. And there is the Phil Gramm-freshman Republican school, which seems interested only in cutting foreign aid and every budget except the Pentagon's. This view is not just America first, but America only.

William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, the popular new conservative journal, remarked to me that on domestic policy, the Republicans have continued the Reagan revolution to its logical conclusion, with the Gingrich revolution. But on foreign policy, they have not extended the Reagan revolution at all. This has real implications for Republicans, Kristol argued, "because Reagan did not just stand for limiting government and cutting taxes. He also stood for patriotism, strength abroad and using American power overseas in the pursuit of freedom for captive nations."

While the Clinton foreign policy has clearly improved, it would be hard to describe it as having a coherent over-arching theme either. It still seems driven often by television images, a sort of neo-CNNism. Clinton has gone from an ad hoc series of failures to an ad hoc series of successes.

In many ways, Clinton and the Republicans have converged: Neither has a vision, and so both insist that U.S. foreign policy today is about "leadership." Clinton defines "leadership" as all the ad hoc things he has done, and the Republicans define it as all the ad hoc things they would do.

As long as Clinton's list looks relatively successful, so too will his foreign policy. But Bosnia, China or Russia could sour at any time, and with it the view of the Clinton foreign policy.