Why Clinton cannot lead the world now

November 23, 1996|By Daniel Berger

THE CHATTER after the election was that President Clinton, frustrated domestically by a Republican Congress and lame-duck status, would seek his reputation in history as a foreign-policy president in the second term, the opposite of his posture upon assuming office.

You can see it starting at his APEC meeting in the Philippines.

But the sad truth is that he is presiding over the collapse of U.S. influence in the world. Our closest allies bitterly denounce his government. The Third World gangs up against him. The pope defies his policy.

Canada took the lead in organizing a rescue operation for a million displaced Rwandan Hutus because the U.S., which has the airlift capacity, was politically unable either to lead or prevent it.

When President Clinton announced a timetable for Eastern European expansion of NATO to Russia's borders, the Russian politicians most expected to go ballistic, instead kept their cool. VTC Gen. Alexander Lebed told reporters it sounded like mere election talk.

In fact, President Clinton is prevented from becoming an effective foreign-policy president or exercising proper U.S. influence by a set of wrong-headed laws and policies set by Congress.

The administration knows how destructive they are but, under the Dick Morris philosophy of pre-empting conservative opposition, embraced them.

Perhaps the administration was hoping for Democratic control of the Senate or the ouster of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The voters would do neither for him.

Taking on Helms

If Mr. Clinton wants to establish the possibility of reasserting U.S. influence, he must first confront and defeat Senator Helms on policy issues.

The first imperative is to pay up the $1.4 billion arrearage on dues and assessments to the U.N. The fury at Washington for trying to bully the U.N. while not paying up knew no bounds during the October speech-fest. Most of it came from traditional allies.

The U.S. veto of a second term for Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was repudiated by all 14 other Security Council members. The Africans and Arabs rallied round Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who won't bow out, meaning the highest political price is being exacted. The successor will be no one championed by Washington.

The rationale that Congress would not free the $1.4 billion if Mr. Boutros-Ghali remained implies that it will do so after he departs. That is no sure thing. Mr. Clinton will have to use up domestic political capital fighting for this on Capitol Hill if he wants to become a foreign-policy president.

The second reform needed is to repeal the Helms-Burton Act, which commands the world to quit doing business with Communist Cuba.

Not only has this brought reprisal legislation in Canada and an appeal to the World Trade Organization from the European Union. It offended Pope John Paul II into receiving Fidel Castro, conveying legitimacy heretofore denied.

The pope understands that his planned visit to Cuba will offend Cuban-American hardheads and Senator Helms. He also knows more about undermining communism in a formerly Catholic country than all of them.

The earlier legislation that forbids other countries from investing in Iran and Libya because the U.S. unilaterally determined them supportive of terrorism is equally counter-productive. Congress, which has no authority over other countries, winds up mimicking the old Arab League secondary boycott of Israel.

For Mr. Clinton to exercise U.S. influence to its full potential to help shape the world in which the U.S. must live would be a good thing, in the American national interest. He would have to confront reality at home first.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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