U.S. Stumbles for Lack of Foreign Policy

April 24, 1994|By Henry Trewhitt

Slowly the evidence grows. America abandons a Somali mission ordered by George Bush with hubris and ended by Bill Clinton in veiled humiliation. NATO drifts with spasms of unity and only sporadic American leadership. The president, hurried by events, repudiates his secretary of defense with little time for cosmetics. Air strikes against contemptuous Serbs become penance for earlier waffling - and the spark of leadership now flickering could be an unwitting step toward escalation or humiliation.

In a fragmented world, America stumbles for lack of a foreign policy.

One of the more benign examples was the public torment of William J. Perry, the hapless secretary of defense. Mr. Perry apparently understood, and said, that the administration would not intervene to stop Serbs from butchering Muslims in Gorazde. Mr. Perry is not the sort to pre-empt his chief, even if he had the mandate to do so. Yet he echoed the judgment of many generals, who wondered where intervention would lead.

But President Clinton was leaning toward air strikes under a NATO/U.N. umbrella, and it fell to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to reverse Mr. Perry on on the MacNeil-Lehrer news program. The Serbs might logically have been befuddled by the lightning shift - not that they deserve empathy. Within a week the first blow fell.

Another week later, Mr. Perry publicly assumed responsibility for the deaths of 26 Americans and allies, mistakenly killed by American fighters over Iraq. It was an odd performance. American Cabinet secretaries, unlike the British, do not customarily take blame for tragic accidents. But Mr. Perry could have been in shock by then, only months after reluctantly taking over a military establishment befuddled by the departed Les Aspin. Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, added fatuity by labeling the tragedy as somehow caused by reduced defense spending.

nTC The fumbling would have been a passing awkwardness had it not been painfully typical. Anyone speaking for a government lacking foreign policy guidelines needs the president's counsel from moment to moment. Only the president can wing it. Others risk repudiation.

Even in administrations with an orderly doctrine, a policy-maker needs an exceptional mandate, keen understanding of the boss, or heedless self-confidence to interpret freely. Or perhaps all of the above. Witness Henry A. Kissinger under Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, Zbigniew Brzezinski under Jimmy Carter, or James A. Baker III under George Bush. No one in the Clinton administration is so armed.

The administration is not equipped, anyway, to calculate policies of cold self-interest. Steeped in domestic issues, hounded over Whitewater, the president does not think in such terms. A former secretary of state suggests that Mr. Clinton might well apply Arkansas politics to the world.

Defense Secretary Perry is a manager without lust for global politics. Secretary of State Christopher is a negotiator - as he demonstrated with Iran under Jimmy Carter - not a strategist. W. Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, is an intellectual lacking instinct for the jugular. None of them would think of creating the illusion of policy and leadership where none exist, as U.S. statesmen did often during the Cold War.

Not that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, or George Bush and Jim Baker, would find policy-making easy today. The doctrine of containment came readily during the Cold War, even when it was pursued over a precipice, as in Vietnam.

Later, in Mr. Bush's Persian Gulf war, national interest commanded action even though ham-handed American diplomacy helped create the crisis. By defanging Saddam Hussein, U.S. leadership secured oil supplies and, less noticed but possibly more important, eliminated the danger of nuclear war between Israelis and Arabs.

Mr. Bush rightly recognized what he called the dawn of the new world order. Somehow a new world order will evolve from the current turmoil. But Mr. Bush did not foresee the delayed sunrise. It was Mr. Bush, moreover, who dispatched Americans to Somalia to restore order and feed the hungry after his defeat by Mr. Clinton.

He predicted early success and early departure. But it was more than a year before frustrated Americans got out with painful losses, uncertain what they had accomplished. Some Clintonians suspect that Mr. Bush willed them an impossible mission for political revenge. There is no evidence for that, but Somalia renewed the question of America's role in a still leaderless world.

What are the criteria for such missions? Moral obligation? Then the United States could have considered greater commitment in Cambodia or even, from deeper in history, stopping carnage in Liberia. Humanitarian appeal alone? Hunger and terror are greater in Sudan than in Somalia. It is hard to escape the thought that American troops entered Somalia partly because of the nightly television images, hardly a basis for foreign policy.

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