Clinton foreign policy crumbling in Europe

January 31, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun Staff writer Carl M. Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Two weeks after President Clinton's acclaimed European trip, the policies he promoted are crumbling.

Overall European security, a principal purpose of the trip, is undermined daily by an ever-fiercer Bosnian war that has provoked angry recriminations for days between France and the United States.

Russia, the most dramatic stop on the president's trip, appears to have dropped any pretense of rapid market reform, Mr. Clinton's No. 1 foreign priority. Even as Mr. Clinton boarded the plane to leave Moscow, President Boris N. Yeltsin was yielding power to a prime minister determined to continue subsidizing inefficient state-run industries.

The shaky independence of countries on Russia's periphery, such as in Belarus, which Mr. Clinton also visited, was underscored by the ouster last week of reformist head of state Stanislav Shushkevich by the Moscow-leaning Communist old guard.

The one bright spot left from Mr. Clinton's tour is Ukraine, whose president, Leonid M. Kravchuk, moved last week to secure support from his Parliament for relinquishing the country's nuclear weapons.

In response, U.S. officials are working furiously on an aid package to steer Ukraine toward economic reform. But such is the advanced collapse of Ukraine's hyperinflated economy that intelligence officials fear the nation may tear itself apart.

Presidential trips abroad often have a choreographed quality, with achievements exaggerated and disagreements with foreign leaders minimized in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual praise. But this one was notable for how quickly reality clashed afterward with the trip's triumphant rhetoric.

Flying from Minsk, Belarus, to Geneva, Switzerland, one of the president's top advisers told reporters, "Every specific issue that we pursued . . . was accomplished.

"Even more importantly, the president laid out in increasing specificity a vision for Europe and how all the elements fit together," said the official, speaking anonymously to a press pool.

But set against events immediately afterward, the U.S. pronouncements in Europe raise questions about Mr. Clinton's willingness to acknowledge and confront European security challenges.

And they feed growing doubts about his credibility in making good on threats and following through on intentions.

Typical of the president's optimistic spin at practically each stop was his assertion, after meeting Syrian President Hafez el Assad in Geneva, that the wily dictator was prepared to meet Israel's demands for diplomatic ties, trade and open borders.

"The short answer is yes," he said when asked. Mr. Assad was far more circumspect in his own statements. The Israelis were disappointed but not surprised.

Position on Bosnia

In Brussels, Belgium, Mr. Clinton and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders reaffirmed and expanded their previous threat of air strikes to prevent the strangulation of key Bosnian cities and to protect aid deliveries.

Although Mr. Clinton insisted that the allies had to mean it this time, the threat has been greeted by warriors on the ground with no more seriousness than previous ones, as witnessed by the fatal shelling in Sarajevo of children playing in the snow.

Fighting between Muslims and Croats in Central Bosnia has intensified, with the Muslim Bosnian army displaying growing strength and determination despite being pinched by an arms embargo. At the same time, the Bosnian Serb army is reported to be getting fresh recruits from neighboring Serbia, although Pentagon officials say they have no evidence to support those claims.

United Nations commanders say the peacekeeping mission is becoming untenable.

Rather than carrying out the threat of air strikes, NATO has held its fire while its leading member, the United States, publicly bickers with France over what to do next. France has repeatedly urged deployment of U.S. ground troops and now wants the United States to press Bosnian Muslims into a territorial compromise. Washington rejects both those demands.

The quarrel has strained NATO to the point where its collective will to do anything seems to be questionable.

This raises new doubts about a chief goal of what Mr. Clinton called a "historic" NATO summit: building a durable European security structure that eventually incorporates struggling democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. If a 40-year-old, 16-nation, fairly cohesive alliance can't act decisively, how can a larger, much more diverse grouping?

Mr. Clinton's vague Partnership for Peace, which holds out the promise of NATO expansion without saying when, only adds to this uncertainty. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia make no secret of their disappointment in not getting a clear commitment.

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