Tricky events abroad to test Clinton early

January 09, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's dramatic final moves on the world stage, intended partly to help Bill Clinton, will nevertheless force his inexperienced successor to make vital military and foreign policy decisions in the intense glare always focused on a president's first weeks.

The new president's agility will be tested as he tries to handle the unaccustomed role of commander-in-chief while trying to keep enough public attention on his domestic agenda to force congressional cooperation. An early blunder could shrink his stature at home and abroad.

Major unfinished business that will demand Mr. Clinton's urgent attention includes:

* Somalia: While the first goal of American intervention-- securing food and medical relief supplies -- has largely been met, U.S. forces will only have begun their phased withdrawal from Africa by the end of this month. The sometimes violent seizure of heavy weaponry likely still will be under way.

Most U.S. forces aren't supposed to be out of Somalia until four weeks after Mr. Clinton's inauguration. And a smooth withdrawal will depend on cooperation from a determined and outspoken U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who wants Somalia to be as safe as possible for his peacekeeping forces.

After U.S. combat troops leave, a large force of support troops, such as engineers, will remain to help rebuild the devastated country under a U.N. flag. Marines will stay stationed offshore.

* The Balkans: The Bush administration's late push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina may require Mr. Clinton to join with NATO allies in early but important decisions on how tough the crackdown should be.

The issues will include whether Serbian bases should be attacked in addition to shooting down Serbian aircraft. Events also may require Mr. Clinton to act quickly to avert the spread of the Balkans conflict to Kosovo and Macedonia.

* Iraq: Despite Saddam Hussein's apparent cave-in to Western pressure over surface-to-air missile batteries, he simultaneously became more obstinate on U.N. weapons inspections, barring the arrival of inspectors on their own planes. Additional tough measures may be required to maintain an inspection and monitoring regime aimed at wiping out all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

* Russia: The signing of the START II accord making historic cuts in nuclear long-range missiles has heightened domestic political pressure on President Boris N. Yeltsin, possibly requiring significant new signs of Western support to get the pact ratified by the Russian Parliament.

Mr. Clinton was consulted on and applauded each of the key foreign policy initiatives taken by Mr. Bush in recent weeks. To a large extent, Mr. Bush has used the transition period to make the most difficult decisions of principle, leaving the president-elect with secondary management choices.

But it would be naive to imagine that Mr. Bush's recent blitz of foreign-policy activity was entirely aimed at clearing the decks for Mr. Clinton. The START agreement, for one, put the finishing touch to a major Bush legacy of dismantling both the behavior and the apparatus of the Cold War.

Significantly, efforts to conclude START II -- and the ticklish job of winning compliance with its foundation agreement, START I -- were allowed to lapse during the election campaign as major foreign policy decisions were put on hold.

Also significant, the Bush administration allowed months to pass before insisting on enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia and took no decisive military action following disclosure of Serbian-run concentration camps and other atrocities. It had to be goaded, in fact, into harsh denunciations and other political moves against Serbia.

The foreign problems confronting Mr. Clinton threaten to put him in the same position Mr. Bush was harshly criticized for allowing himself to fall into: that of reacting to events.

According to Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, there is no avoiding this.

Pleading guilty to the charge that "our approach was often ad hoc," Mr. Eagleburger said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday night, "a certain degree of ad hockery is a virtue, not a vice, when you are dealing with a world in crisis and in chaos, one in which it is impossible to be certain of anything six months ahead."

"In these circumstances, good instincts are as invaluable as a good plan," he said.

Mr. Clinton will be reacting with instincts developed chiefly in the domestic arena and with a foreign policy team largely removed from the center of world events during the tumultuous years when the Cold War withered and a vastly different set of challenges surfaced: ethnic strife and hate-driven nationalism.

To some extent, Mr. Clinton will be compelled to compensate for Mr. Bush's inaction as well as for his recent high-profile actions. For instance, the administration has not fulfilled Mr. Bush's pledge to guarantee delivery of humanitarian aid to Bosnians "no matter what it takes."

And the lessened high-level attention to the Middle East peace process may have contributed to the drift in negotiations, with renewed violence in the Israeli-occupied territories and expulsion of 415 Palestinian Muslim fundamentalists filling the vacuum.

Mr. Clinton also faces a crisis largely of his own making: the prospect that thousands of Haitian boat people will flood to south Florida after his inauguration, lured by his campaign criticism of Mr. Bush for shipping them home without a full hearing.

For its part, the Clinton team shows signs of relishing the opportunity to influence world events after 12 years of GOP control of the White House.

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