Clinton inheriting urgent problems in foreign policy Arms, peace talks stalled while focus was on campaign

November 08, 1992|By Thomas L. Friedman | Thomas L. Friedman,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- While President-elect Bill Clinton put together an administration devoted to keeping his promises on domestic affairs, the outgoing Bush team is leaving him with a series of problems abroad that could force him to devote much more time than he had planned to foreign policy.

Now that they are on their way out the door, some Bush administration officials concede that there has been very little top-level focus, direction or presidential political capital expended on foreign policy since former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and President Bush went on the campaign trail last summer.

Partly because of the absence of such high-level U.S. attention, several sets of negotiations have stalled or broken down, and some trouble spots around the world have worsened. Subordinates of Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker have continued to work on these problems, from arms-control talks with Moscow to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

But Bush administration officials said that without the attention of the president and the secretary of state, who kept the reins of foreign policy tightly in their hands, lower-level officials were not being taken as seriously abroad.

"It was obvious to a lot of people abroad that the administration was not engaged in foreign policy at a level that was politically significant," said a senior administration policy maker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The president was not paying much attention to foreign affairs, and the only other guy with clout was Baker, and he was otherwise engaged.

"The perception of the outside world was that things here were on hold, and that perception created a different reality. It gave some people who wanted to redirect or redefine things in their area an opportunity."

Mr. Bush still has time to refocus on foreign affairs, but for now, administration officials point to a series of diplomatic problems that worsened during the campaign:

* The Russians have backpedaled on their commitments with Mr. Bush in June to destroy SS-18 intercontinental nuclear missile silos and some other multiple-warhead missiles as part of the follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Had he not been distracted, Mr. Bush would almost certainly have sent Mr. Baker to Moscow to get the agreement back on track.

* Turkey is close to a decision to stop allowing the use of its bases by the United States to support the no-flight zone over northern Iraq and relief operations for the Kurds. Without Turkey, a Clinton administration would have much less room to maneuver against any new Iraqi military threat.

* The Arab-Israeli peace talks have stalled because high-level U.S. pressure, which all the parties need as an excuse for making concessions to one another, has vanished.

At the same time, while the nation was focused on the election, several new problems that were brewing beneath the surface have flared into the open, including a potential trade war with Europe.

Mr. Clinton said during the campaign that he favored retaliating against countries that closed their markets to U.S. exports, but he has refrained from commenting now so as not to complicate things further for Mr. Bush.

In addition, the Khmer Rouge are threatening to scuttle the United Nations election plan in Cambodia, which the Bush team helped to forge; there has been a new surge in Haitian refugees; and the civil war in Angola, which Washington and Moscow helped to settle, has resumed because Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader who had been supported by the United States, was unhappy that his party lost the recent election.

This is the backdrop against which Mr. Clinton will arrive in Washington. While Mr. Clinton used his first public statement the morning after the election to stress his intention to maintain continuity in U.S. foreign policy, his advisers are beginning to realize that in several major areas, there may be little continuity to build on. In many areas they could be plugging into a broken socket.

As a result, it is likely that Mr. Clinton's undefined and untested instincts in foreign policy and crisis management will be challenged as quickly as his well-honed instincts and background in domestic policy, if not sooner.

Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to hold the world at bay until he built the Great Society at home, but his prosecution of the Vietnam War would not let him. Mr. Clinton is not so naive as to think that he can keep the world at bay, aides say, but they insist he can juggle foreign and domestic affairs at the same time. That will depend, however, on the nature of the problems that arise abroad and whether they are of the boilerplate variety or those that will require the sustained attention, direction and political capital of the president.

"Congress may give Clinton a honeymoon, but the world will not," said Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written several policy papers for Mr. Clinton.

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