Clinton Team Misreads the World


WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The leaders of the Clinton administration not only speak with one voice, but they also say the same strange things.

They see parallels between today and the period after World War II and between the challenges they confront and those faced by Harry Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. And they see contrasts between the bipartisan support available to Truman, and the lack of it among today's Republicans.

But they are mistaken. The situation today is very different than after World War II, and there are far more differences than similarities in the problems faced today and those confronted in 1947.

Truman's great challenge was meeting Joseph Stalin's drive to dominate Europe -- by subversion where possible and force where necessary. Violating the pledges he made at Yalta, Stalin incorporated the independent states of Central and Eastern Europe, seized Czechoslovakia and threatened Greece, Turkey and also Italy and France before the gutsy Truman and his distinguished team confronted Soviet intentions and stopped Stalin in his tracks.

Truman, Acheson and Marshall faced deadly serious questions of life and death for Europe. Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national-security adviser Anthony Lake seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge that they do not. They are reluctant to understand that for the first time since Hitler's forces marched into the Rhineland, neither the United States nor any of its historic democratic allies confronts a serious threat to its national security.

To the contrary, in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Christopher quotes President Clinton as affirming that even though ''the totalitarian ideology that motivated our Cold War foes is dead . . . we face a contest as old as history -- a struggle between freedom and tyranny.'' But that is really not true.

There are some serious problems in some parts of the world. They endanger some portions of some populations -- especially in Africa. But they do not constitute a significant threat to the lives and limbs and vital interests of America or of its allies or of the survival of our civilization. Where freedom is pitted against tyranny, as in Tibet, Myanmar, Cuba or Kosovo, the United States is not engaged.

Mr. Christopher is correct, I believe, in saying that there is danger from diverted Soviet nuclear material, danger of nuclear proliferation, and danger from spreading technology of weapons mass destruction. He is correct in citing transnational problems -- international crime, drug trafficking, terrorism, environmental degradation, excessive population growth, AIDS, refugees, regional conflicts. These need to be worked on. But they do not endanger our survival.

His conception of the ''historic conflict between freedom and tyranny'' calls to mind what political scientist Stephen Walt described in 1989, as the approach of ''the world-order idealists.'' According to him, these were people who even during the Cold War saw the main threat to the United States as coming not from the U.S.S.R. or any other hostile power, but from ''collective global problems such as the threat of nuclear war, ecological decay and poverty'' and other undesirable conditions that could be met but only by a new world order, not by military strength or strategy. It calls to mind people like Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance and Mr. Christopher who in 1977 counseled Americans to abandon their inordinate fear of communism and focus on ''basic'' North-South problems of hunger and poverty.

''World-order idealists'' do not see the great strategic military threats. They see problems that can be met by U.N.

peacekeeping, non-lethal weapons, global treaties, arms agreements.

Warren Christopher is a very smart, sophisticated man who understands that a president needs victories, not just new conceptions of complicated problems. So he claims foreign-policy victories for the Clinton team.

''We,'' he says, meaning the Clinton administration, ''stopped Iraqi aggression and halted North Korea's nuclear program.'' ''We'' helped secure removal of Russian troops from the Baltic states and Germany and removed nuclear weapons from non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union.

''We,'' he says, ''have begun to reshape European security architectures,'' and have established the framework for ''the most open global trading system in history.'' ''We'' have enhanced hemispheric cooperation and reinforced democracy on several continents.

The list is impressive and some of it is even warranted. But it grossly exaggerates the administration's achievements in several spheres.

True, the Clinton administration responded with dispatch and firmness to Saddam Hussein's threat. True, it has worked with some success on removing nuclear weapons and troops from some former Soviet states. True, it has extended and strengthened the framework for global trade. But it is also true that it dealt with a defeated Iraq and shaky states of the old Soviet Union.

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