Scandal could weaken foreign policy Clinton faces Iraqi, Israeli-Arab and Asian crises

January 26, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The sex scandal swirling around Bill Clinton threatens to undercut his credibility in foreign affairs even though administration officials insist he's in command.

Any powerful display of American force, such as air strikes against Iraq, will inevitably be interpreted by skeptics as an attempt to divert public attention from the president's troubles. At the same time, adversaries could get the impression the White House is so preoccupied that it can't respond effectively.

"Is he in any condition to make the right call?" asked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, yesterday during the ABC program "This Week with Sam and Cokie."

"This has been a very serious blow at a crucial time," said William Quandt, a Middle East expert and professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

With twin crises looming in the Middle East and financial turmoil percolating in Asia, Clinton faces major tests of his leadership in the coming weeks that would challenge any chief executive.

The administration is consulting with allies on possible military action to compel Iraq once again to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. If force is required, "we're not going to engage in pin-prick responses," says a senior official. Meanwhile, officials are struggling to get stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians back on track.

At the same time, the White House faces the tough chore of persuading Congress to increase the assets of the International Monetary Fund, which has billions of dollars tied up in bolstering distressed Asian currencies. The Asia crisis could have a ripple effect on the U.S. economy if Asian nations stop buying American exports and flood the American market with cheap goods.

Aides say the Monica Lewinsky controversy has not distracted the president from what one adviser called "intense, hands-on work."

Even while the news about his alleged affair with a White House intern was about to burst into public view, President Clinton spent more than four hours last Tuesday closeted with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to nudge the Arab-Israeli peace process forward.

Two days later, he spent two to three hours with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And on Saturday, he conferred with top aides for an hour and a half on Iraq, laying the groundwork for possible military action if President Saddam Hussein continues to bar access to United Nations weapons inspectors.

As Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright begins to contact her counterparts overseas, the United States and its allies have amassed the largest amount of military hardware in the Persian Gulf region since the 1991 gulf war, with three naval battle groups and 350 aircraft.

A spokesman for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the senator had not seen any effect on the president's foreign policy activities. Netanyahu portrayed Clinton as fully engaged during their discussions this week.

There's no question that if military action is called for, "the system works," says Quandt. "If you're giving an order to bomb Iraq, that will be carried out."

The problem arises where presidential leadership is required in more subtle ways, according to Quandt and others: in persuading and pressuring.

For instance, "the policy on Arab-Israeli peace has to be led from the White House. There's a very special and often essential role that the president plays," he says.

Noting the seriousness of the current Iraqi and Middle East crises, Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says: "Even in the best of times you need to devote all your attentions to these matters. To be distracted by other things, it has to hurt."

Taken by surprise by the developments in Washington this week, foreign governments will need some time to assess the impact, says Peter Rodman, who runs the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a Washington think tank.

If they perceive Clinton as seriously weakened, "Obviously it subtracts from the effectiveness of our diplomacy," Rodman said.

Rodman and Quandt both were witnesses to the interplay of foreign policy and White House scandal during the administration of Richard M. Nixon.

During October 1973, the month in which Nixon accepted the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew and ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what was dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon confronted a Middle East crisis of superpower proportions.

The Soviet Union was threatening to intervene in a war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Nixon, who had launched an airlift of supplies to Israel, put American forces on alert, an action fraught with tension during the Cold War years.

During a subsequent press conference, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was asked if the alert had been called because of Nixon's domestic crisis. He dismissed the idea, but added that the Soviets might have been emboldened by the weakened position of the U.S. president.

"One cannot have crises of authority in a society for a period of months without paying a price somewhere along the line," he said.

Clinton's latest crisis is still only a few days old. At least in the case of Iraq, there is strong awareness among the American public of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's effort to acquire dangerous weapons, according to Middle East specialists.

"He ought to pursue diplomacy against Iraq as if there were no scandal. He can rest assured that Ken Starr [the special counsel in the expanded Whitewater probe] will pursue the scandal as if there is no Iraqi crisis," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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