Clinton is not a tough guy

October 04, 1994|By Trudy Rubin

PSYCHOANALYZING presidents and ex-presidents seems to be in vogue these days in the media.

Last week's New Yorker has a piece on the "co-dependency" of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The president is portrayed as a foreign policy brinksman addicted to crises with which he can't cope, while Former president Carter can't resist rushing to the rescue on terms which aren't Bill Clinton's.

Thursday's New York Times called the White House "the enabler" of an effort by South Carolina's Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings to sabotage a major trade accord. In 12-step terms that means the White House made it possible for a protectionist opponent to block the trade agreement by delaying congressional approval -- just like a wife who "enables" her alcoholic husband by handing him the booze.

I'm not a great fan of psychobabble. But I admit to being disturbed by how an intelligent, well-intentioned president often ends up doing just the opposite of what he says he wants.

So I decided to try my hand at a little analysis. The material? An on-the-record session that President Clinton held with the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board two months ago.

First impressions? This was a man far more comfortable with (and sophisticated about) foreign policy than when he last spoke to the board during his presidential campaign.

Second, this is definitely a president who likes thinking out loud. One got a lengthy review of every foreign policy zig and zag since he took office (and there were many). A startling contrast to Ronald Reagan, who knew too little, but never seemed to have trouble giving orders to his crew.

But sometimes Bill Clinton's chatty style seemed strangely inappropriate for a gathering with media scribblers.

For example, when I asked whether he intended to replace Secretary of State Warren Christopher by the end of this year, he replied:

"Well, the answer . . . is I have not made a decision to do that and I guess the answer would be no on that." Speaking of damning with faint support.

This was not a president who was feeling defensive about his foreign policy record. He touted his Russia policy, where he felt vindicated for his strong support for President Boris Yeltsin and democracy; he was also proud of U.S. brokerage of a nuclear accord between Russia and Ukraine. But it was when he talked about Haiti and Bosnia that he revealed the most.

When asked about his waffling on Bosnia, he was insistent that the United States call to lift the arms embargo on the Muslim-led government and back it with NATO airstrikes had been right. "I still believe that I was right in February 1993," the president said.

But the policy couldn't be implemented, he said, because it was opposed by Russia, and by the Europeans, who -- unlike the United States -- had peacekeeping troops in Bosnia under the U.N. flag. Britain and France feared Serb retaliation against their troops.

"The policy that went back and forth was, will we embark on our own in Bosnia and do what we think is right, or will we work with the Europeans?" the president said. The implication seemed to be that Washington could not (or would not) change the Europeans' minds.

But if Bosnia was as important to U.S. interests as he said, why wasn't a strenuous presidential effort made to convince the allies, instead of simply taking a European no for an answer? Or, if Bosnia was consigned to the European sphere of interest, why did the administration keep on talking as though it intended to take the lead?

This disparity between words and actions has bedeviled Bosnian policy -- and NATO policy -- until this day, giving the Serbs heart and constantly encouraging, then disappointing the Bosnian government.

The conviction with which the president insisted that the "lift-and-strike" policy had been right impressed me, as did his assumption that there was just no way he could impose it. The words were those of a leader still promoting the "one superpower" theory; the assumptions those of a leader who believed neither in the "power" nor in the "one super."

Similarly with Haiti. The president was adamant that the Haitian case was a more critical test of U.S. resolve than were Bosnia or North Korea (where he insisted "the resoluteness of the United States has been clear").

Haiti's leaders, he said, "welshed on a deal [made] in the United States, and a deal that we were going to be part of." His reference was to the 1993 Governor's Island Accord which provided for the resignation of Haiti's military junta and the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The Haitian military did renege on this deal -- an accord not too dissimilar to the more military-friendly bargain negotiated by Mr. Carter.

But most experts believe that the military was encouraged to play hardball by the timid American response to the Haitian government's blockage of a U.S. ship with international police trainers aboard.

The president points out that the police trainers were an unarmed U.N. force "so we weren't prepared, essentially, to deal with an attack." So the U.S.S. Harlan County turned around and went home.

Again, the sense was that there was nothing the United States could have done. But why not keep the ship off shore and send reinforcements?

Why convince the Haitian military that, behind your threats, you don't mean what you say?

Self-delusionary fantasies? Schizophrenia? Oh heck, I think it's something much simpler, something you don't need a $190-an-hour shrink to figure out. Bill Clinton is more comfortable talking tough than acting tough. Not such a bad character trait. Except when you still hold the controls of the world's last superpower and your words mean more than those of some guy schmoozing with his friends.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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