Articulating Foreign Policy in Mid-Crisis Clinton Objectives Focus on Free-Market Democracy

September 26, 1993|By MARK MATTHEWS | MARK MATTHEWS,Mark Matthews is the diplomatic correspondent in the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When Henry Kissinger was in the Nixon White House, he remarked that he didn't have time to think; he had to act on the basis of thinking already done.

President Clinton's advisers don't even have that luxury. So sweeping and swift are post-Cold War changes that they have had to readjust their thinking on the run.

This week, they caught their breath long enough to explain their overall direction in a series of speeches building up to President Clinton's first address to the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow.

Built around what National Security Adviser Anthony Lake calls "enlargement," the policy is clear, pragmatic and forward-looking.

Simply put, it means expanding the power of free-market democracy worldwide.

First, the U.S. needs to strengthen the core post-World War II alliance with revived economies and freer trade.

Next, it means bolstering nations in their first throes of political and economic freedom while prodding others in the same direction.

Finally, it means isolating those nations and forces that threaten to derail or weaken the trend, containing chaos and easing the suffering in regions of greatest humanitarian concern.

Related to this are two overriding goals: success of reform in Russia and a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

But no sooner had the administration spelled out the theory of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy than it was again caught up in a crisis.

As Mr. Lake chatted with students at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Boris Yeltsin was dissolving the Russian parliament in a coup against obstructionist lawmakers.

The incident raised anew a nagging question about Mr. Clinton's foreign policy -- not whether he has one, but does he have enough grasp of events and the levers of power to carry it out? This question is particularly important for a president in- creasingly forced, by a tight budget and shrinking forces, to work in combination with other countries.

For an administration that had led an international campaign to finance reform in Russia and bolster President Yeltsin, it is surprising that it had so little idea of what was about to happen. This is particularly true in light of Mr. Yeltsin's apparent planning for the move.

In hindsight, Secretary of State Warren Christopher believes he was given a heads-up last week by his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev. If so, it apparently didn't register strongly with the administration at the time.

And it was doubly odd that President Clinton, Russia's pre-eminent patron, had to call Mr. Yeltsin to find out what he was up to.

By nightfall, the administration reacted smartly, reflecting both Mr. Clinton's consistent belief in Mr. Yeltsin and deft response by his chief adviser on Russia, Strobe Talbott. It did the Russian an immense favor by rapidly mobilizing international support and pressing congressional leaders for hastened passage of $2.5 billion in aid to former Soviet republics.

But the event put Mr. Clinton out on a limb. He was forced to argue that dissolving a parliament and shredding a constitution somehow advances democracy. And his aides were unable to say whether he had extracted a pledge from Mr. Yeltsin not to use military force.

Another recent challenge left doubts about whether the Clinton team is on top of events.

This was the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, in which the administration turns out to have been little more than a bystander.

The full story of the secret diplomacy between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization isn't known. But it's now clear that high-level U.S. officials were being kept informed. It's also clear that in their own roles as mediator and catalyst between Israel and the Palestinians, they pushed ideas that were far less dramatic than the final agreement reached and were less forthcoming than Israel was prepared to be.

A bridging proposal put forward by the United States last July skirted the whole question of Palestinian jurisdiction over specific territory. Israel ended up ceding control over Gaza and Jericho in a move that will allow an embryonic Palestinian homeland.

Israel also made a strategic decision that Americans avoided: that if it wanted to pursue reconciliation with a partner that had clear authority, it had to deal directly with the PLO leadership.

U.S. officials maintain, correctly, that they provided the overall framework in which the secret diplomacy blossomed. It's also arguable that President Clinton's strong support for Israel gave Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the assurance he needed to take a huge political risk.

Once the deal was cut, the administration swung into action to make it stick. President Clinton persuaded Mr. Rabin to join PLO leader Yasser Arafat at the White House signing -- an immense psychological breakthrough. And it moved swiftly to organize a donor's conference in Washington this coming Friday with the goal of putting $3 billion into the occupied territories over 10 years.

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