D-Day trip offers Clinton a chance to bolster image

May 30, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton departs this week on the first of two back-to-back European trips in hopes of reversing his growing reputation -- at home and abroad -- as a weak or indifferent world leader.

The events this week revolve around the 50th anniversary of D-Day, providing Mr. Clinton a rare opportunity to speak to the entire world. He was not yet born when young men from all over the United States, Britain and its Commonwealth waded ashore into the line of fire of German machine guns. Nor did he serve in the armed forces a generation later, when Americans fought in Vietnam.

But as the U.S. commander-in-chief and president of the only remaining superpower, Mr. Clinton will occupy a place of honor among the bands, speechmakers and aged soldiers who will revisit the site of their sacrifice.

White House officials expect the televised ceremonies to bolster the president's sagging approval ratings. But Mr. Clinton has a second mission on his weeklong European trip: to reassure jittery foreign leaders that he cares enough about international policy to take the risks needed to conduct it successfully.

Mr. Clinton is to meet leaders in France, Italy and Britain.

In July, he plans to attend an economic summit in Naples, Italy, and then travel to Germany and Poland. One topic sure to arise, U.S. officials say, is one that has probably done the most to undermine confidence in the Clinton administration's foreign policy: the ethnic war in Bosnia.

"My government thinks President Clinton is indecisive when it comes to Bosnia," said one Western European diplomat stationed in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Personally, I think it's because he is preoccupied with his domestic policy. That's what he was elected for and, clearly, he's already thinking about re-election."

In 1992, running against an incumbent widely respected for his conduct of foreign policy, particularly of the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Clinton and other Democratic challengers needled George Bush for focusing too much on problems abroad. Mr. Clinton said that he would focus "like a laser" on the issues relating to everyday American life, particularly the economy.

Since inauguration, however, two realities have sunk in to the Clinton team. One is that foreign policy crises cannot be wished away. The second is that many of the Bush administration positions, including those singled out by Mr. Clinton during the campaign, were easier to criticize than to correct.

Mr. Clinton rebuked Mr. Bush for returning refugees to Haiti. He spoke passionately in favor of the United States' being more aggressive in stopping the Serbs' campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. He criticized Mr. Bush for overlooking China's labor camps and other human rights abuses.

Yet as president, Mr. Clinton sent his Justice Department into court to uphold the Bush policy on Haitian refugees. He issued threats against the Serbs in Bosnia, but little more -- and the "ethnic cleansing" continued. On Thursday, he extended the favorable trade status of China, reciting a litany of reasons identical to Mr. Bush's rationale.

Liberals disappointed

The decision on China was particularly disappointing to liberals who have championed human rights since the Carter administration.

"It was with great disappointment that I received President Clinton's decision to renew China's most-favored-nation status,"

said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

In Haiti, too, Mr. Clinton has appeared unwilling to take risks to nurture democracy. Although he has spoken out in favor of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a U.S. Navy ship that Mr. Clinton dispatched to that nation in October with 218 lightly armed troops as the first step toward returning him to power was turned back by a band of government-sponsored thugs on the docks in Port-au-Prince.

Recently, Mr. Clinton has been whipsawed in the other direction: A hunger strike by Washington-based activist Randall Robinson prompted Mr. Clinton to order the processing of Haitian refugees aboard ships.

Those actions have not gone unnoticed in foreign capitals. North Korean leaders have shown little fear of U.S. retaliation in taking the United States to the diplomatic brink over their nuclear weapons development program.

In nations friendlier to the United States, such actions further the perception that the United States isn't up to the task of coping with Bosnia, the area for which there has perhaps been the widest gap between U.S. words and U.S. deeds during the Clinton administration.

On May 1, 1993, a stern-looking Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher stood at the White House and vowed that "the clock is ticking" on Serbian aggression.

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