Foreign, domestic crises don't wait for White House lull Issues add to Clinton stress but can be distractions

October 07, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton faces the stark reality that his presidency is in peril, his famed ability to "compartmentalize" is being put to the test as never before.

Vying with the threat of impeachment for his attention are a number of major crises, foreign and domestic, that are challenging Clinton's strength, authority and focus in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as well as his ability to lead and inspire confidence.

Converging on the president these days are a possible budgetary showdown with Congress and midterm elections that will likely have wide-ranging consequences for his fate.

On foreign policy, Clinton is confronting the global economic catastrophe -- what he said yesterday was perhaps the world's "most serious financial crisis in half a century" -- as well as the crucible of Kosovo, with possible U.S. military action on the horizon.

"He shows remarkable energy, and his capacity on an intellectual level appears unaffected," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a national security official in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But Clinton's weakened state at home, Sonnenfeldt adds, "creates a certain element of uncertainty in terms of what people outside the U.S. calculate about him and his preoccupation" with possible impeachment.

The confluence of current crises, says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government, should remind the nation that "a weakened presidency may not be the ideal in this sometimes unpleasant and dangerous world."

Much of what Clinton is doing these days is "window dressing," Ginsberg says.

"His capacity to act is much diminished," he says.

But the White House, now resigned to impeachment hearings, is hoping that the international problems demanding Clinton's time and attention will work to his advantage by diverting public focus away from the Lewinsky scandal and allowing Clinton to demonstrate leadership.

"I think he always looks good when he has a challenge like this to step up to," says Don Baer, a former Clinton communications director.

"I view this as a moment of opportunity for him."

Strong words on Kosovo

Yesterday, speaking at a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Clinton addressed both the volatile situation in Kosovo, where President Slobodan Milosevic Yugoslavia has refused to end hostilities against ethnic Albanians, and the worldwide economic tumble.

Clinton used the forum to press the Republican-controlled Congress to approve $18 billion in U.S. funding for the International Monetary Fund.

"There is no excuse for refusing to supply the fire department with water while the fire is burning," he said.

In remarks about Kosovo, Clinton issued a stern warning to Milosevic, saying that world leaders "all agree that Kosovo is a powder keg in the Balkans."

He said U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was meeting with Milosevic to make clear that NATO was ready to launch airstrikes if the Serbian leader fails to honor the United Nations resolutions.

"The stakes are high," Clinton said. "The time is now to end the violence in Kosovo."

Sonnenfeldt said it is difficult to know whether Clinton's wobbly status is affecting either the president's foreign policy decisions or the actions of foreign leaders.

He said some foreign leaders may be inhibited from aggression, thinking Clinton may be quick to lash out at them to rouse U.S. patriotism or divert attention away from the scandal.

On the other hand, Sonnenfeldt says, "There may be others who believe Clinton is so handicapped, they have freedom of action.

"It's hard to know what motivates a Milosevic or a Saddam Hussein or the North Koreans."

But while the White House hopes Clinton's foreign policy leadership will help him regain his footing at home -- and keep his poll numbers high -- some Republicans doubt he will have much success in changing the subject away from impeachment.

Americans, said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, are seldom engaged by foreign policy issues unless American lives are at stake.

"Poor George Bush," he says. "If that stuff was important to people, he'd be president."

Another shutdown?

hTC But the public would likely be highly engaged if another government shutdown resulted from the budget impasse between Clinton and Congress.

Clinton has said he will veto an omnibus appropriations bill, which needs to be signed by the end of the week to keep the government going, if it does not include funds for his education initiatives and the $18 million owed to the IMF.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said it seemed the White House was considering a "domestic 'Wag the Dog' " -- in other words, a budgetary battle with Congress intended to distract attention from impeachment problems and damage Republican lawmakers.

He and the White House are keenly aware that the public blamed the Republican-led Congress for the government shutdown of 1995.

Joe Lockhart, a White House spokesman, denied the suggestion that the administration had secret plans to force a government shutdown.

But even the threat of such may have worked to Clinton's advantage: Yesterday, Republicans signaled a willingness to yield on some contentious issues.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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