At Last, the U.S. Has a Foreign Policy

January 17, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- President Clinton's first European journey is certainly a success in terms of the domestic television spectacular all presidential trips now have been made into. The real and critical issues were dealt with in ways that satisfied the Washington press, if not the victims of Bosnian war and East European insecurities.

The trip had the usual Gargantuan accompaniment of television and press people, which of course is what it really was about. Every presidential word or gesture or humor was recorded as if it actually mattered, and every staged presidential performance, on or off the saxophone, was transmitted to the folks at home, at least to those bothering to watch.

These presidential journeys increasingly resemble the ceremonial progressions of the potentates of decadent Oriental empires, surrounded by courtiers, acolytes and fawning auxiliaries. Foreign policy, foreign nations and foreign chiefs of state are merely the decor.

It has to be said that Mr. Clinton didn't start this; however, the spectacle has increased over the years in inverse proportion to the decline of American economic power and political leadership.

Nonetheless, it was a useful week's work by Mr. Clinton. It dispelled some of the European doubt expressed to me at the start of the week by a Paris political scientist, otherwise disposed to sympathy toward Mr. Clinton, who asked, ''Why is it that only Republican administrations have foreign policies?''

I reminded him that an earlier generation of Democrats was responsible for the Truman Plan, Marshall Plan, Korean War and CIA, and for the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and Cambodia. They had more foreign policy than turned out to be good for them.

It is true that since Vietnam the Democrats have seemed traumatized by problems connected to the use of force, but in this they have been faithful to the public's own ambivalences.

The Reagan administration left Lebanon like a shot when the American Marines there were bombed, and Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush subsequently confined themselves to intervening only in very small and unwarlike countries, until the Persian Gulf War came along.

The American chiefs of staff have been equally shy about any action likely to produce American casualties.

The Democrats' problem with violence is the product of a national trauma not yet resolved. Mr. Clinton, in Brussels, seemed more resolute on Bosnia than any of his NATO counterparts, but it is not the United States that has troops on the ground in Bosnia. He could afford to be resolute.

The Clinton administration has given itself a European policy where, before, one really did not exist. The pressure of preparing for this trip forced it to do so.

The policy is composed in part of common-sense judgments on allied relations and a recognition of the American national interest in solid security and economic relations with Europe.

But it includes much ambiguity and evasion on the hard questions, and makes a huge gamble of confidence in Boris Yeltsin.

It's only a start. But it's not a bad start.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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