Mideast summit is test for Clinton, too He tackles Wye talks, other 'high-risk' fronts amid weakness fears

October 15, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A Middle East peace conference opening today at Maryland's Wye Plantation is just the latest high-level, high-risk diplomatic venture President Clinton is undertaking at a time when the world demands assurance that Washington is neither disabled nor distracted.

Clinton is expected to spend a large chunk of the next few days focused on the Eastern Shore talks, trying to help overcome the final obstacles to an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on an interim withdrawal of Israelis from the West Bank.

To succeed, he will have to get both sides to agree not only on the withdrawal plan, but on a series of Israeli demands on security and a Palestinian commitment to combat terror.

The summit also will have to chart a way to further negotiations on the toughest sources of continuing conflict, issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood.

Hanging over the effort is the date of May 4, 1999, when the five-year peace process launched in the Oslo accords is due to expire and Arafat intends to declare an independent Palestine. The date is a "looming disaster" unless Israelis and Palestinians are progressing toward final settlement, a senior Clinton administration official said yesterday.

But while the Mideast talks will capture the focus of attention during the next several days, the president and his foreign-policy makers also are working strenuously -- against the backdrop of a global financial crisis and a presidential scandal -- to contain a host of other battles and disputes disturbing the peace on practically every continent.

Senior officials insist these diplomatic efforts are driven by events and are not intended as a diversion from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"If you don't act, people will say you're weakened and paralyzed. If you do, people say the president is trying to take attention away from other problems," a White House official complained.

Even so, Clinton must cope not only with a world anxious about the state of American leadership, but also with Republicans increasingly asserting their own foreign policy agenda and with the forthcoming congressional election. Thus, the Democratic president clearly wants to address world problems aggressively and to be seen doing so.

National security adviser Samuel R. Berger, briefing reporters on the Kosovo agreement reached with the aid of U.S. negotiators early Tuesday, remarked, "Ultimately, the president has set the direction and determined that we are, in fact, going to lead both in terms of willingness to use force and in terms of diplomacy."

If successful on the Eastern Shore this weekend, Clinton would preside over the launch of a new set of Mideast talks aimed at creating a permanent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. While White House officials say the talks will be conducted in a virtual news blackout, the president's involvement will guarantee heavy attention.

"The American public has continued to say in polls that they wish for the president to continue to do his job. His efforts to help broker peace in the region are a perfect illustration of their desire to see him fulfill his commitments in foreign policy," said Marc Ginsberg, a Clinton campaign spokesman in 1992 who later served as ambassador to Morocco and an adviser to the State Department.

"The public respects him for working these issues as he has in the face of distractions from Congress," Ginsberg said.

Aides and special envoys, meanwhile, are working to end other crises in Afghanistan, between India and Pakistan, on the Korean peninsula and on the Horn of Africa, where former national security adviser Anthony Lake is mediating a dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Analysts see in the high-profile ventures a message of reassurance and stability.

"The White House must show it is not paralyzed," said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel who now directs the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

World leaders perceive Clinton as having been wounded by the Lewinsky scandal, and "his effectiveness is a matter they're looking at clinically," said Djerejian.

During President Nixon's Watergate scandal, there was a clear determination by the president and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to show the world that the United States was not paralyzed, according to Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution.

The demonstration of resolve was particularly important when the Soviets threatened to intervene in the Middle East during the October 1973 war, said Sonnenfeldt, who served on the national security staffs of Democratic and Republican presidents.

But it can be overdone, Sonnenfeldt said: "Mad activism has its own penalty."

A day after the House voted last week to begin an open-ended impeachment inquiry that could doom his presidency, Clinton turned to foreign affairs to help fulfill his pledge following the vote to "do my job for the American people."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.