Clinton's Foreign Policy Comeback

October 11, 1994

Suddenly, things are looking up for President Clinton's foreign policy. After months of bumbling during which his world leadership was questioned at home and abroad, two dramatic triumphs seem to be unfolding in Haiti and Iraq. When these are combined with the quiet success this administration has attained in working for Israeli-Arab peace, staying out of the Balkans and building acceptable relations with Russia and China, Mr. Clinton has grounds for hoping both his record and reputation may be in a turn-around stage.

Yesterday was undoubtedly the best of the Clinton presidency in its search for the wise and effective use of U.S. power in the post-Cold War world. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein blinked after precipitating another of his self-defeating crises when Mr. Clinton ordered a prompt mobilization of U.S. strike forces. In Haiti another strutting general, Raoul Cedras, gave up his command just two weeks after American troops arrived uncontested to prepare the return of democratic government.

All this Mr. Clinton achieved without serious casualties or significant challenge from Congress to his authority as commander-in-chief. To be sure, the Haiti deployment has yet to run the test of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return from exile -- a danger-filled event in a hate-filled land. And Mr. Clinton still faces the task of preventing Mr. Hussein from setting off future crises.

The president can be excused for taking a certain satisfaction in these tactical victories, coming as they do after a series of humiliating defeats in Congress and a precipitous drop in his approval ratings. How this will affect the Nov. 8 elections no one knows, but at least the president can look forward to a post-election showdown on global trade reforms with some foreign policy achievements under his belt.

Just what is to be learned from the events in Haiti and Iraq? First, luck is an element in the affairs of nations. Mr. Clinton was lucky in having as adversaries two certified scoundrels whose bluster evaporated in the face of U.S. armed strength. Second, hesitation and the lack of a clear American message should be avoided at all costs. For Mr. Clinton, Haiti was a loser both for staying out or getting in until events (with Jimmy Carter's aid) started falling his way. In Iraq, perhaps emboldened by what he achieved both in Haiti and, shortly before that, in staring down Cuba's Fidel Castro, he acted more decisively than ever before -- thus avoiding any miscalculations about what would be the U.S. response to another invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Clinton has been in the White House long enough to know that presidential popularity and accomplishment have their ups and downs. Just as last year's budget victory was followed by this year's health care defeat, so his triumphs in Haiti and Iraq will undoubtedly be offset by failures elsewhere. Next time, however, he will be a president who has tasted success in dealing with crisis and is no longer a foreign policy novice.

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