Needed: a New Foreign Policy Team

June 29, 1994

Now that President Clinton has shaken up his White House staff in an attempt to stop his political decline at home, his next target should be his muddled foreign policy operation.

Warren Christopher has to go. As secretary of state, he projects an image of weakness that ill-suits this mighty nation. Accompanying him to the exit door should be Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, who has been unable to articulate, much less formulate, U.S. policies that measure up to today's challenges.

The shift of David Gergen from the White House to the StatDepartment gives the president a conduit for surveying the miasma at Foggy Bottom. Mr. Gergen's strong suit is public relations, however, and the conduct of foreign policy needs a lot more than new packaging and a new spin. It needs a sense of purpose, vision and firm resolution.

Most of the blame for a series of foreign policy disasters culminating in Jimmy Carter's capitulation to North Korea's Kim Il Sung must be laid at the feet of the president. Even senators disillusioned with Mr. Christopher's performance view him as a loyal, dedicated official too often left out to dry by his boss in the White House.

Mr. Clinton is constitutionally mandated to be commander in chief of the armed forces with ultimate responsibility for the nation's security. But on too many occasions, his attention to these matters is uncertain and sporadic as he "focuses like a laser" on domestic affairs. Time after time, there has been a disconnect between his lofty rhetoric and what actually transpires. The result has been a serious decline in U.S. credibility and the respect this country gets on the world stage. Pipsqueak generals in Haiti or Bosnia or Somalia defy Washington at will. Allies feel there is no consistency in American policy that would encourage them to follow Washington's lead.

Presidents can't be fired for ineptness. But secretaries of state and national security advisers always have heads for the chopping when a president sees a clear need for a change of direction or an injection of vitality and new thinking.

As for timing, Mr. Gergen's willingness to remain in public service until the end of the year provides a marker. By then the mid-term elections will be over and the new White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, will have had his shot at winning passage of a health care bill. A new national security team would give the Clinton presidency a needed lift as it reaches the halfway mark in the present four-year cycle.

The litany of foreign policy failures and reversals is an oft-told tale in this administration. Mr. Christopher and Mr. Lake have no doubt done their utmost to perform well. But what the world sees is a frail secretary state who seems a minor apparatchik and a national security adviser seemingly befuddled and overwhelmed by this strange post-Cold War world. The president should let them go -- with thanks, since he is a big part of their problem.

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