Clinton to tackle foreign policy questions on TV

May 03, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Noting a recent poll showing that 39 percent of Americans disapprove of President Clinton's foreign policy, comedian David Letterman feigned surprise: "I had no idea that he had a foreign policy."

Late-night ridicule might be the ultimate put-down for a foreign policy often criticized as unfocused, unimaginative and reactive in an uncertain world in which United States leadership is seen as crucial.

With such perceptions growing, and eroding Mr. Clinton's support, the president will make a major attempt tonight to demonstrate he is on top of foreign policy when he submits to 90 minutes of questioning on CNN. It will be his most lengthy public discussion of these issues since he took office; and it will be watched not only by the American public but by foreign leaders taking stock.

Mr. Clinton will answer questions at the Cable News Network studios in Atlanta and through satellite links from journalists in South Korea, Israel, Bosnia-Herzegovina and South Africa. Their questions are likely to be much tougher than those heard on Mr. Clinton's orchestrated town hall meetings.

Scheduling the session indicates the White House understands its amorphous foreign policy is losing credibility, and also feels it is time to tackle the perception that Mr. Clinton is weak in international affairs.

The soft rattle of sabers over Haiti came as critics said economic sanctions wouldn't work unless backed up with military action. Now that the threat of force has been introduced, it puts greater pressure on the administration to use it if sanctions don't work.

Threatening force is a double-edged sword politically. Polls indicate that Americans want the president to project leadership internationally, but they are skeptical about entangling interventions in difficult sites such as Bosnia and Somalia.

Last week a CBS/New York Times poll gave the White House cause for concern. It showed that 76 percent believed Mr. Clinton was mainly reacting to events and 58 percent were uneasy with his ability to deal with international crises.

One of Mr. Clinton's aims tonight will be to reinforce with the American people the notion that the world is a much more complex place since the collapse of communism, and that an easy-to-understand foreign policy -- such as containment during the Cold War -- is tough to formulate.

Paul Begala, a Clinton political adviser, said the public is more sophisticated about changes in the world than many foreign policy experts give it credit for. To the chagrin of critics, he said, "he [Mr. Clinton] hasn't reduced foreign policy to a bumper sticker."

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