Clinton given spotlight in international affairs ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 10, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Among the least likely things tha President-elect Bill Clinton thought he would be facing when he got the happy election results Nov. 3 was that he would be taking office with 28,000 American military troops on the ground in Africa.

All through the 1992 presidential campaign, he had kept foreign policy pretty much on his own back burner as he sought the Democratic nomination and then the presidency with an almost single-minded focus on domestic issues. The state of the economy, in a recession that would not go away, drove his message of change against a president whose foreign-policy credentials were extremely impressive, especially when compared to the meager claim that Clinton could make in the same arena.

Early expectations that President Bush would be able to ride to re-election on the strength of his foreign-policy achievements, especially in mobilizing the world community to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War, withered as the recession -- and the spotlight held firmly on it by Clinton and independent hopeful Ross Perot -- dominated the national dialogue.

The closest that foreign affairs came to breaking through in the 1992 campaign was the brouhaha over Clinton's trip to Moscow as a graduate student during the Vietnam War and the stealth search of his passport files. That was hardly a high-level exploration of the Arkansas governor's experience in dealing with America's overseas friends and enemies.

Now comes Bush's totally unexpected decision to dispatch American armed forces to Somalia to assure safe distribution of food and other humanitarian aid to save millions in that hapless country who are facing starvation. As foreign deployments of troops go, this one should be relatively bloodless, unless U.S. intelligence about the threat from marauding thugs and warlords has been vastly mistaken.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon has projected the mission to take several months at least, during which time Bush will turn the executive branch over to Clinton. And while some have suggested this is an unfortunate gift of welcome to the White House from the departing president to the new one, it could be a fortuitous handoff for a newcomer who does not have impressive foreign-policy credentials.

Successful completion of the mission in Somalia will bring the troops home in a mood of congratulation if not quite of celebration of the sort that marked the homecoming of Americans who fought in Operation Desert Storm. And it will fall to President Clinton to be the prime welcomer and recipient of the world's plaudits. Should the mission drag on or fail, it could be a tar baby for Clinton, but the odds are much less likely for that to happen. Indeed, that prospect made the call to send the troops a relatively easy one for Bush to make.

Other new presidents have been presented with better foreign-policy gifts on taking office, to be sure. Even as Ronald Reagan was taking the oath of office at the Capitol in 1981, the Iranians were releasing the American hostages in Tehran in whose behalf departing President Jimmy Carter had labored in vain for so long.

That event enabled Reagan to start off his first term with a big parade of welcome for the hostages and tough talk about what would happen if any others were ever taken on his watch.

Meanwhile, Carter slipped off into retirement with a reputation as a failed president, although he had achieved what was the single greatest foreign-policy achievement in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in personally hammering out the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978.

In any event, the American mercy mission to Somalia will give that other governor from a small Southern state with little foreign-policy experience an opportunity to get his feet wet under what appear to be the most favorable circumstances for success.

The bigger challenge for Clinton will be whether to back up his earlier strong words about aid and intervention in embattled Bosnia, where starvation is also claiming many lives and conditions on the ground pose a much greater danger of long-term involvement and casualties to American forces that might be sent there.

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