No Clinton Doctrine

HENRY L. TREWHITT

September 07, 1993|By HENRY L. TREWHITT

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Albuquerque, New Mexico. -- The latest word is that American policy in Somalia is to create a stable nation, presumably democratic. In Bosnia- Herzegovina, it is to . . . well, the commitment in the late Yugoslavia is ambiguous. It waxes and wanes. Washington first trumpets a stern policy for the North Atlantic Alliance toward the bloodletting, then falls into ineptitude when members deny support.

Rhetorical support for democracy is evangelistic, to the point that the United States even looks favorably on helping the United Nations police the former Soviet Union. The leap from here to there is breathtaking, especially as Washington falls behind in U.N. payments and many Russians suspect Americans of aiming to keep them on their knees.

In still another arena, America punishes a great power, China, and a former Cold War client, Pakistan, for spreading missile technology -- a point on which America's own record does not bear close scrutiny.

In each case, policy or lack of it may be defensible on the merits. But the contradictions and gaps are growing. The administration is fortunate that Americans are not thinking hard about why we're doing what we're doing. For no overarching strategy has been declared except for generalities and ad hoc responses. Unpredictability can be an asset, but not when it produces mostly assumptions of American vacillation.

Americans did not go to Somalia initially to build a nation among people who lack comprehension of democracy. They went, responding to television images, to feed the starving, which was doable.

Now the undertaking has evolved into the impossible, though an early criterion for entry was a clearly marked exit. The why of that commitment is not at all clear. If it is moral, then its relation to other conflicts needs explaining. A better case can be made for policing in, say, Liberia, where the U.S. has a historic interest.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a more obvious and direct test of American interests. Unchecked, its bloodletting could fuel those former Soviet republics and rivalries elsewhere in Eastern Europe. At some uncharted point Western Europe could not remain aloof from the growing disorder -- nor could the United States. Yet the United States is yielding so much decision-making to others as to risk credibility.

The questions thus before President Clinton are terrifying, more so because their urgency is not yet clamoring. But many Americans still bask in the crumbling assumptions of Cold War victory and are too occupied with taxes, spending and crime at home to focus on the world beyond daily events. Strategists trapped in cliche still write heedlessly of peacetime conversion when there is no peace and people die in almost 50 wars. At some point Americans will ask for clearer guidance about what standards they are expected to support in a chaotic world.

The trumpet will not sound elsewhere. European allies, tormented like Americans by national issues and their own failure at union, evade larger responsibility. In frustration they demand American leadership then reject it when it is belatedly offered. President Clinton, unseasoned in world affairs, relies on his advisers and avoids sounding alarmist. Secretary of State Christopher is a man of reason who lacks both instinct and mandate for brutal diplomacy.

This is rich stuff for a heedless critic of the president: lack of leadership when only America can lead; unfocused priorities in the hottest conflicts; uncertainty of policy generally. Yet few Clinton opponents have leaped at the opportunity. It may be the rare case in which the magnitude of the challenge mutes the VTC critics. Perhaps they can imagine being called on ultimately to put up or shut up.

What is most obviously missing is a set of standards for U.S. engagement, embracing, of course, such specifics near the front burner as the North American Free Trade Agreement. The doctrine need not be, cannot be, detailed. The president does not need to shout that the sky is falling. A doctrine as clear as Cold War containment is neither possible nor desirable. But American interests need explaining. His regular radio addresses would be a good vehicle.

His diplomats and some members of Congress need to remind him that the world soon forgets previous favors, that interests, not emotions, must control. First of course the diplomats would have to discipline their own ranks. Recent State Department resignations protesting inaction in Bosnia were emotional reactions to obscene cruelty -- those television images again -- and not to American interests. The protesters forgot what they knew, that worse horrors are committed daily elsewhere out of camera range. The United States perhaps should be doing more, or less, but not from emotion.

It all comes down to leadership, setting at least broad criteria at home and abroad for foreign engagement. A good case can be made to equate foreign and domestic policy. But that is not an argument welcome to a president clawing for domestic programs he holds dearest. It won't happen until ad hoc responses are no longer tolerable.

The danger is that both friends and adversaries in the meantime will continue to whittle away his options in shaping the balance of power and that still unformed new world order.

Henry L. Trewhitt, a former diplomatic correspondent for The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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