Erratic record mars U.S. foreign policy

March 30, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton confronts his most dangerous foreign policy challenge, with North Korea, he is hampered by an erratic foreign policy record that raises doubts about his ability to manage the crisis.

Though he has avoided disastrous pitfalls, Mr. Clinton can claim major foreign policy success only in expanding world trade, an issue closely tied to his domestic agenda.

Inexperienced, advised by a team that had been out of power for a decade, Mr. Clinton entered office too late to draw credit for the end of the Cold War but was forced to cope with its violent aftermath.

Over 15 months, he struggled haphazardly to sort out U.S. interests in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia while pursuing a larger vision of economic growth, nurturing Russian reform, keeping Middle East peace talks on track and adjusting a downsized military to new demands.

With North Korea, Mr. Clinton faces a hair-trigger crisis that would test the military and diplomatic acumen of the most sophisticated statesman. It involves a mysterious and isolated Stalinist regime, seemingly bent on building a nuclear arsenal, with a million-man army and Scud missiles poised to lash out at 36,000 U.S. troops and the capital of an ally.

Miscalculation by either side could spark a major conflict in North Asia, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

The White House is at pains to present an unflinching show of resolve on North Korea. While unwilling to rule out military action, officials stress that defensive military steps are intended to keep the crisis from escalating.

"The point of the steps we are taking . . . are all designed to reduce the dangers in the area," Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, said in an interview. "If we were to do nothing or shy away, I think we would be sending a message that in the long run would be potentially dangerous.

"Secondly, we are doing this in a very firm but very careful step-by-step process that offers the North Koreans every possibility to take a more constructive path. I don't think we should overreact or allow them to jolt us off what I think is a sensible, prudent path."

But this display of quiet determination comes against a backdrop of mixed signals and inconsistent behavior in handling other crises.

The administration has operated well when it has a domestic consensus and U.S. interests are starkly defined. Little doubt exists, for instance, that the United States and its allies are prepared to use power when needed against Saddam Hussein.

But Mr. Clinton let the furor over the deaths of 18 servicemen in Somalia in October derail the United Nations' efforts to rebuild a government there. His policy shift exposed an inadequately conceived and poorly explained new policy on peacekeeping and on U.N. operations in general that has since been revised.

And for months, until the highly publicized Serbian attack on civilians in Sarajevo in February, the United States and its NATO allies relied on excuses to avoid carrying out the threats of military force against Bosnian Serbs.

Best and worst moments

On the diplomatic front, two recent episodes showed the administration at its best and worst.

As the Middle East peace process collapsed after the Feb. 25 Hebron massacre, Mr. Clinton and his aides swung into action with doggedness, knowledge and some political guts.

During Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's visit March 16, Mr. Clinton pressed him to compromise on Palestinian security in the occupied territories while working out a strategy to get Syria, Jordan and Lebanon back into the peace talks with Israel.

Mr. Clinton followed up with a call to Syrian President Hafez el Assad and resisted pressure from Israel's supporters -- and many in Congress -- to veto a Security Council resolution that cited Jerusalem as "occupied territory."

In this effort, Mr. Clinton acted in pursuit of an overriding priority: to obtain a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement and thus bolster both Israeli and regional security and U.S. ties with the Arab world.

Contrast this with the administration's recent handling of China, which proved a political embarrassment. There, Mr. Clinton's advisers are sharply divided, undercutting the credibility of the State Department's drive to get China to comply with the president's order last year linking favorable trade terms to human-rights improvements. This division -- and the business community's opposition to the department's policy -- surfaced during Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's trip to Beijing, detracting from his attempt to convince the Chinese that he was presenting a clear-cut U.S. policy.

In describing the message he relayed from Mr. Clinton to China's president, Jiang Zemin, Mr. Christopher did not mention human rights. "I may well have referred to that, but there was no need to remind President Jiang Zemin that President Clinton was deeply committed to the . . . human rights policy."

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