The forced resignation of Clifton Wharton Jr., deputy secretary of state, is a distasteful affair that has little to do with the administration's difficulties in articulating and implementing its policies in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia.
Mr. Wharton, perhaps much to his current relief, was rarely if ever consulted on these issues. Instead, this distinguished academic was consigned to backroom managerial matters while President Clinton's national security team grappled with recurrent crises.
If Mr. Wharton is replaced by an experienced diplomat who can be Secretary of State Warren Christopher's alter ego in every sense of the word, that may be just as well. Mr. Christopher needs the kind of help an old Foreign Service hand, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, gave to former Secretary of State James A. Baker III during the Bush era. President Clinton himself has admitted mistakes have been made and subsequent criticism has been justified.
If there is to be a more profound shake-up, the president will have to look higher than the second- and third-tier levels where the administration lost control of some on-going problems. Mr. -- Christopher, Defense Secretary Les Aspin and W. Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, have all been targets of complaints in Congress.
Somalia continues as a source of embarrassment and befuddlement for the administration. It now appears Mr. Christopher as well as Mr. Aspin ignored warnings from officials on the ground that might have prevented the disastrous firefight in Mogadishu Oct. 3 that cost the lives of 18 U.S. servicemen. While Mr. Aspin rejected requests for more armor to protect these troops, Mr. Christopher did not respond in time to recommendations that the United States cease its efforts to capture warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid.
It was after this catastrophe that the administration decided to limit its engagement on Somalia and set a March 31 timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops -- a policy switch bitterly protested by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. At issue is the key question of when and how the United States should commit its power and prestige abroad. Mr. Clinton does not yet have an answer.
Probably there is no single formula, such as the containment policy toward the Soviet Union, that can deal with the myriad conflicts and confrontations erupting in a disorderly world. While Mr. Clinton has so far managed to avoid sending significant forces to Bosnia or Haiti, events in both places could change that.
Moreover, the crisis-next-time may be boiling up in North Korea. If that paranoid power continues work on building nuclear weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions, the president will have to decide whether to order a pre-emptive strike. In Korea, vital U.S. interests in stopping the spread of nuclear arms are clearly at stake. If the situation blows, the administration had better have its foreign policy under better control.