The president gets a 'D' on foreign policy

January 19, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Until last week, the incident that most alarmingly characterized President Clinton's "foreign policy" was the story about Secretary of State Warren Christopher summoning up the courage to tell the president point-blank that he had to spend "at least an hour a week" with his national security adviser.

A full hour a week? Yes, and all on foreign policy!

After the president's charming but "so what?" trip last week to a nervous, waiting Europe and a morose, angry Russia, there is a new quote by the president that I believe more genuinely captures his view of the world on this first anniversary of his inauguration:

"I believe that the greatness of nations in the 21st century will be defined not by whether they can dictate to millions and millions of people within and beyond their borders," the president said on his Donahue-style show in Moscow, "but instead by whether they can provide their citizens, without regard to their race or gender, the opportunity to live up to the fullest of their ability."

Now, that sounds good, but is it? Such words would be correct if spoken inside Norway, New Zealand or Costa Rica. But in the rest of that world that we are seeing out there? A world of nations increasingly criminalized by global crime syndicates, a world of societal and cultural breakdown, a world in which the population of one new China is thrust upon the planet every year?

The trip -- widely sold here by the president's men and women as proof that he does care about the world out there -- in truth proved that the president will not or cannot employ any genuine extension of American power in the world; that he believes that the United States need only be a cheerleader for all the good that governments can do; and that he has not changed his ideas about placing American power under hapless U.N. and other multilateral "peacekeeping" operations.

My respected colleague David S. Broder, the syndicated columnist on national issues, noting that this week marks the first anniversary of William Jefferson Clinton's ascension to the American presidency, gave the chief executive a report card. Mr. Broder, one of the fairest minds around, produced a discouraging grade -- a "C." Mr. Broder judged that "he has been neither outstanding nor disastrous measured against his postwar predecessors," although there had been "striking high and low points."

And if we are to grade the president and his team on foreign policy? Well, let us tally up some pluses and minuses of this first year:

PLUSES: The most dramatic positive events of his first year were unquestionably the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The president deserves considerable credit on these, although NAFTA in particular was basically negotiated by the Bush administration.

He also deserves credit for putting forward to the world a charming visage, an energetic image and a general feeling that he is concerned about others. These may seem to be lightweight qualities in the leader of the free world, but they never are (recall how John F. Kennedy created power through his own image of cajoling strength).

On the other hand, many are concerned that there was little substance behind the cajolery on this trip, such as a genuine concern for the security of the Western world rather than simply wishing folks "the opportunity to live up to the fullest of their ability."

Relations with Latin America and with Asia -- two key areas for American diplomacy -- have not suffered during this first year, but neither have there been any dramatic policy developments.

The real movement toward peace in the Middle East, with Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) finally "dealing," is admirable, and the president has handled it with dignity. However, this is the victory of the Bush and Baker administration, because without their toughness with the old rightist government in Israel, this peacemaking Labor government would never have been elected.

MINUSES: Overwhelmingly, this administration's problem with foreign policy remains its curious inability to understand power.

In many ways, this first year has been disastrously marked by impotent move (Bosnia), after impotent move (Somalia), after impotent move (Haiti), after impotent move (North Korea).

By his inability to extend, threaten or use American power to assure the bullies of the world that we mean business, the president has, in only one short year, put the Western world and its values in grave danger. The president of the United States, after all, does not have the right to be only a domestic president. The president's first duty is national security, and the U.N. and multilateralism and all the confused peacekeepers in the world will not assure that.

So, as sorry as it makes me, I have to give the president a "D" on foreign policy.

For his real problem lies in the fact that he is offering a world of goons, thugs and fanatics the '60s style of therapeutic understanding. And, yes, they understand it all too well.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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