U.S. uneasy with role as sole superpower It is 'indispensable' but resented, and unable to get its way

March 02, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After nearly a decade as the world's only superpower, the United States still fits uneasily into the role.

"The indispensable nation," as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright describes the United States, has assumed so many responsibilities overseas as to stir resentment in some regions as a military and economic bully.

It's a bulwark against Iraqi germ weapons, Iranian terrorism, Balkan ethnic carnage, Latin American narcotics and Asian financial turmoil. Yet at crucial points, Washington has trouble getting its way.

Despite sending 10,000 extra troops and two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, Washington found itself unable to call the shots in negotiations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. When U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan came back with a deal, President Clinton accepted it with misgivings and is having trouble selling it to Congress.

After leading an international rescue of Thai and South Korean currencies, Washington is having difficulty getting Indonesia's aging leader, President Suharto, to abandon the crony capitalism that has brought his nation close to ruin.

And the United States has outraged Europeans with threats to punish them economically for trading with two of America's nemeses, Iran and Cuba.

One result is a growing debate over how the United States should be using its unique power: Where should American forces be sent and for what reasons? Where and when should the United States be prepared to act alone?

The Clinton administration prefers to act in concert with others but is willing to dispatch forces on its own or with only token allied support to confront adversaries like Iraq.

When it comes to actual military action, however, its record is restrained: limited airstrikes against Serbian targets in Bosnia and missile attacks in Iraq.

Despite deploying forces around the globe, the White House shows discomfort with the role of global policeman.

Officials say keeping weapons of mass destruction away from rogue states is a key administration goal. But they dispute the idea, advanced by retired Marine Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, of a "Clinton doctrine" to confront such problems wherever and whenever they occur.

It was easy to see how people got that impression in the Iraq crisis, however.

"We blew up this issue tremendously," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. "We made it sound as if Saddam was a Hitler, created the impression that he's armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. We created the impression that we'll maintain sanctions at all costs -- and then we cut a deal. There's an inconsistency there, which is troublesome."

While reserving the right to take solo action, the Clinton White House would prefer to exert power through U.S. leadership in international institutions -- NATO, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

These offer what Albright calls "confirmation over and over again of America's standing as a leading force for justice and law in the world."

A key Senate champion of this approach is Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a veteran Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who says it offers a double benefit: exerting American influence while keeping the cooperation of other countries.

"We have to be more skillful, smarter and not heavy-handed in how we exercise our leadership," he said in an interview.

Critics worry that the White House is merely reacting to crises instead of building broad international support. They also say it is spreading American military power too thinly around the world and argue that when force is used, it should be more decisive.

A suspicious Congress

Congress tends to look with suspicion at most of these institutions, except for the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance.

House Republicans have blocked payment of $1 billion in American arrears at the United Nations, and both GOP and Democratic members have balked at raising the U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund.

Whatever the cause, American influence has waned in the United Nations to the point where the administration avoided seeking a Security Council resolution supporting U.S. and British military action against Iraq.

Republicans tend to view the United States and other institutions less as organizations in which the United States participates than as tools to use at its discretion.

"Now you sense the U.N. is making policy and we're facilitating it," says Brookings Institution scholar Richard Haass, a former adviser to President George Bush.

Republicans tout the kind of muscular coalition-building that Bush conducted before the Persian Gulf war. Haass compares this to a Western sheriff leading a posse.

Assembling such a coalition means making clear to other countries that "there are real benefits for the people who are with you and costs for the people who aren't," says Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a top Pentagon official in the Bush administration.

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