Clinton Abroad

June 02, 1994

President Clinton's first official visit to Western Europe calls to mind some incendiary comments made by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about how Americans go about choosing their leaders. The time was the early Eighties, soon after Ronald Reagan took office. Mr. Schmidt was in his usual arrogant state of mind.

His disdain for President Jimmy Carter was already legendary. What was new was his low opinion of Mr. Reagan, then embroiled in the backlash of some unfortunate remarks about how he would conduct a nuclear defense of Western Europe.

Mr. Schmidt noted that before he became chancellor he had served as minister president of Hamburg, as head of his party's caucus in the Bundestag and as a minister of finance and defense. In other words, he was prepared. And his American counterparts? Why they were provincials, mere ex-governors, who came to the White House with zero experience in foreign affairs. And showed it. Mr. Schmidt had a higher opinion of George Bush. One can speculate about his grades for Bill Clinton.

But of this we Americans can be sure: The president's Western European hosts, despite well-choreographed photo-ops, will be regarding their visitor with something less than admiration. When a high French official was recently asked what he thought of Clinton foreign policy, he said he found it hard to discern just what the U.S. was doing day by day.

That his own government had publicly conceded it was helpless in Bosnia without U.S. leadership can be small comfort to Americans. By the verdict of his own countrymen, Mr. Clinton has been a politician so domestically focused that only lately has he realized his plummeting poll ratings reflect his sorry repute as a world leader.

President Clinton's back-to-back visits to Europe this month and next provide a needed opportunity to reverse his reputation. The White House is all a-jitter about how his D-Day appearance as a commander in chief who shirked military duty will play next Monday. But more important is what the human species thinks about Mr. Clinton as sole superpower chief confronting (in his words) "a new world threatened with instability, even abject chaos . . . religious and ethnic battles . . . tribal slaughters, aggravated by environmental disaster, by abject hunger, by mass migrations."

The president's most cogent formula for dealing with this sorry mess is to avoid "having to commit the lives of our own soldiers where they should not be committed" based on "the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake."

This will hardly be reassuring to Western Europe, torn as ever between desire and resentment on the subject of American leadership. And it will hardly save Mr. Clinton from his domestic critics, even though his low-profile sentiments are in sync with home-folk unwillingness to take casualties overseas. But such are the burdens this ex-governor of Arkansas has assumed, and he will get little sympathy from the Helmut Schmidts of Europe.

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