Compensating for Perceived Weaknesses

TRANSITION TRAPS

January 24, 1993|By CHARLES C. EUCHNER

As America's young president took office, he inherited a awkward commitment from his predecessor. The outgoing administration initiated a policy to confront an aggressive foreign adversary. The new president was dubious about the plan, but endorsed it because he feared cries of weakness from the opposition party.

Against his own better judgment, John F. Kennedy approved the invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs. The attack, which was supposed to unleash a massive rebellion against Fidel Castro, instead embarrassed the United States at a particularly difficult time -- and may have encouraged the Soviets to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. "How could I have been so stupid?" Kennedy later asked.

One explanation is that Kennedy felt he had to do something to show foreign-policy muscle. During his campaign, Kennedy was called "callow" because of his youth and inexperience, and so he overcompensated. He said the Eisenhower administration "lost" Cuba, and his campaign harped on the pseudo-issues of the "missile gap" and the "threats" to the Chinese offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. To neutralize right-wingers, Kennedy kept Allen Dulles at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Dulles helped talk Kennedy into launching the invasion, raising the specter that if the mission were aborted, the troops involved would embarrass Kennedy by "wandering around the country telling the country what they've been doing." President Dwight D. Eisenhower also pushed the plan. Most of Kennedy's advisers, victims of groupthink, went along too.

The way President Kennedy trapped himself into approving the Bay of Pigs invasion has lessons for President Bill Clinton's present predicaments in Iraq and Somalia, as well as many domestic policy issues. The new president might want to rethink a policy, but flinch because his credentials are considered suspect.

Bill Clinton is seen as suspect in two ways. First, as a governor of a small state, and as someone who was pilloried for avoiding the Vietnam draft, his foreign policy credentials are suspect. Second, as only the second Democratic president in 24 years, he must do better than the last. He desperately wants to avoid Jimmy Carter's poor legislative record and "malaise."

Mr. Clinton is especially concerned not to seem like a weak dove. Mr. Clinton is the first U.S. president to avoid military service since Grover Cleveland paid someone to fight for him in the Civil War. Mr. Clinton was confronted at campaign stops with taunts of "Draft dodger!" Military officials openly doubted Mr. Clinton's credibility as commander-in-chief.

The danger is that President Clinton will overcompensate for his perceived shortcomings -- he will out-hawk the hawks and schmooze the brokers. He risks falling into the respectability trap that ensnares many people who come to Washington. If he does, he could lose his chance to realign American politics and enact the wide range of new policies the nation desperately needs.

The difficult transition period increases the danger of overcompensation. Clintonites do not have the plan or the zeal that Ronald Reagan's people brought to Washington in 1981. Appointments came late, staffers bickered, and the president-elect backtracked on campaign promises. Without a coherent plan of attack, the tendency is to continue present policies, especially when your authority is in question.

Before leaving the presidency, George Bush launched a neseries of raids on Iraq. The raids came after Saddam Hussein repeatedly violated the United Nations resolutions for dismantling Iraq's war machine. Mr. Clinton endorsed the raids and issued hawkish warnings to Mr. Hussein. Also during the transition, Mr. Clinton endorsed the Bush administration's deployment of troops in Somalia and repeated his call for greater intervention in Bosnia.

Like Kennedy, Mr. Clinton started to overcompensate for his perceived weaknesses during the campaign. He endorsed arms sales specifically to avoid offending right-wingers and military contractors. With U.S. arms sales last year totaling $23 billion, and other nations selling even more weaponry, Mr. Clinton's acquiescence to the sales may make it harder to make the world a safer place.

On the one recent occasion that Mr. Clinton showed an inclination to rethink American policy, he quickly backed off. Mr. Clinton told the New York Times that he would depersonalize U.S. relations with Mr. Hussein, suggesting that Iraq could develop a better relationship with the United States with a change in behavior. Mr. Clinton claimed his words were distorted, despite a transcript showing otherwise. A shouting match between the Times reporter and Mr. Clinton's communications director followed.

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