Iraq, Somalia affairs may divert Clinton from dealing with primary goal: economy

January 14, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The air strike against Iraq yesterday was a dramatic demonstration of how quickly the Clinton administration's domestic priorities could fall victim to international crisis management.

The long-term impact on the Clinton administration will depend on the duration of the military intervention in Iraq and its effect on Saddam Hussein, according to analysts. If it intimidates Saddam Hussein, it could delay an inevitable showdown between the new president and the Iraqi dictator.

"I don't think he [Saddam Hussein] will pick a fight with Clinton," former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who met with Mr. Bush yesterday, told the CNN television network, "I think he did President-elect Clinton a great favor."

Should it lead to more belligerence and defiance from Baghdad, it will bequeath Mr. Clinton a major dilemma: what to do next to make Saddam Hussein adhere to the demands of the United Nations.

"It is not helpful in that a new administration should be free to sort out its own internal priorities in the best of all possible worlds," said Andrew C. Goldberg, expert in international crisis management with the Carnegie Endowment for Strategic and International Studies.

"It does take a certain amount of initiative out of Bill Clinton's hands. Clinton is going to have to deal with the fact of American intervention in two parts of the world -- Somalia and Iraq."

The rush of foreign policy crises could divert Mr. Clinton's attention away from the "laser beam" intensity he promised to apply to domestic affairs, getting his administration off to a politically disappointing start.

Already there is widespread concern that the transition process is stalling as it collides with political reality. One worrying factor is the limited number of appointees so far named, mainly the Cabinet secretaries, some deputies and top White House advisers.

With less than a week to go before he assumes power, his prospects of fulfilling his promise to name 200 sub-Cabinet appointees and "hitting the ground running" have dimmed.

"He might get himself sucked into foreign policy crises to the detrimentof his entire domestic agenda," Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at American University.

There is a precedent for a president with a strong domestic agenda being overwhelmed by events abroad -- Lyndon B. Johnson, who became a political victim of the Vietnam war.

"What George Bush has done in this transition is historically unprecedented," Dr. Lichtman said. "For an outgoing president to make these kinds of policy commitments and policy initiatives is most unusual."

"It leaves Clinton with a potential immediate crisis on his hands," he said.

Because of the slow pace of appointments, some people have questioned the new administration's ability to manage an immediate foreign policy crisis.

George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton spokesman, said yesterday that Mr. Bush called Mr. Clinton about the raids and there was close contact between Brent Scowcroft, the present White House security adviser, and Anthony Lake, who will replace him next week.

Another positive factor: the professional bureaucracy will be in place and many Bush appointees will be willing to work temporarily for Mr. Clinton. Some of the Bush appointees have already been asked to stay on after the inauguration. "There is a permanent government," said Peter Rodman, of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute who has served twice on the National Security Council. "But it is Clinton him self who will suffer because he will not be able to put his [immediate] stamp on policy.

"He won't have his team representing his outlook who can dominate the institutions. He won't be able to do that until a few months go by. The middle-level people are crucial, the worker bees."

Another former member of the NSC, who asked not to be identified, said: "The real question is the degree to which people right around Clinton are functioning."

He said the evidence from the cooperation on Iraq and Haiti -- where Mr. Clinton is trying to forestall a new flood of boat people arriving after his inauguration -- suggested the Clinton team was operating effectively.

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