New foreign policy team emerges from confusion

January 01, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Still smarting from self-inflicted wounds, President Clinton's foreign policy team enters its second year with a potentially volatile rearrangement of key players and persistent questions about their captain.

No longer will it be dominated by a cohesive core of liberal Democrats, most of whom helped elect Bill Clinton. Now this group will have to share the president's time and attention with an outsider, Bobby Ray Inman, a career military man with a bipartisan congressional power base and limited enthusiasm for his commander in chief.

Added to the mix will be the broader role for Strobe Talbott, an old Clinton friend promoted to deputy secretary of state, and Vice President Al Gore's greater visibility as a foreign policy spokesman, which will inevitably increase his power internally. Presidential adviser David Gergen may weigh in more on foreign policy.

While not a wholesale shake-up, these changes will alter how policy is made.

They were triggered by events in October that, taken together, may compare historically with President John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco. In October, the administration reversed course on Somalia after 18 U.S. Rangers were killed, and pulled its forces away from Haiti's shores after they were threatened by a mob.

The twin debacles sent Mr. Clinton's approval ratings plunging and his advisers into a blue funk. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin never regained the trust of the president or Congress. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher shook up his department's top ranks. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake fell ill and suffered from a bad cough for weeks. U.N. envoy Madeleine Albright stopped talking about "assertive multilateralism" and all but dropped from view.

The reshuffled team seems outwardly collegial but hasn't yet been tested by fire. More important, however, will be how, as a group, it plays to the president's strengths and curbs his weaknesses.

The president is strongest when pursuing policies that advance his own well-thought-out goals. He envisions a free trade-driven prosperity that harnesses a worldwide opening of markets and an explosion of new technology. Hence, he pushed effectively for the North American Free Trade Agreement in Congress and completion of a world trade pact.

He can also be resolute when he's convinced of the correctness of a policy and gets constant reinforcement from a trusted adviser such as Mr. Talbott. For good or ill, he has never wavered in his support for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

He's shown to be weakest in figuring out what America's vital interests are in the turbulent post-Cold War world and mobilizing military, political and moral clout to pursue them. Compounding this is his troubled relationship with the armed forces.

"A sense of confusion about defining and pursuing centrally important national interests is the most troubling aspect of the Clinton foreign policy at the one-year mark," Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes in the January issue of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Wolfowitz served as an ambassador and defense undersecretary the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti continue to stand out because each revealed inadequacies in how the administration confronts new kinds of post-Cold War problems.

In Bosnia, it was aggression against a newly recognized country; in Somalia, attacks on U.N. forces; and in Haiti, collapse of an infant neighboring democracy. In each case, Mr. Clinton talked tough and then backed away when action proved militarily and politically difficult.

The administration now dismisses these as "regional" problems. But Mr. Wolfowitz argues that such a dismissal "misses the point that the ability of the United States to use force effectively -- wherever it decides to do so -- is itself a major interest of this country and is the foundation of the substantial military stability among the major powers that the world enjoys today."

What's more, they point to the absence of an overall administration strategy for dealing with a range of emerging problems that seriously threaten U.S. security: ethnic conflict, the breakup of fragile nations, and weapons proliferation among rogue states.

As the new year dawns, Mr. Clinton and his revamped team still have to prove that they're up to the job.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation. Their column will return to this space Jan. 8.

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