Clinton pursues a legacy of peace

President hopes to foster calm in Eastern Europe during his final year

November 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton, the most traveled president in U.S. history, heads abroad today, trying to place his foreign policy exploits into a coherent framework of peacemaking that would shine in the history books, White House officials say.

The president's trip to Turkey, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo will bring to 62 the number of countries he has visited during his seven years in office. By comparison, Ronald Reagan, the most recent two-term president, visited 26 countries during his eight years.

Clinton's goals for this 10-day trip -- and his remaining year in office -- are nothing if not ambitious: to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the last swath of Europe that remains in a state of conflict. The Clinton administration is using an expansive definition of Europe to encompass a troubled region stretching from Chechnya to Kosovo.

"We can eliminate that zone of instability if we meet the remaining challenges," the president's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, said Friday, "by promoting stability in the Balkans, democracy in Serbia, reconciliation in the Aegean, a settlement on Cyprus, peace in the Caucasus and the integration of Russia into the global community."

Clinton will meet with the leaders of Turkey and Greece in Ankara to discuss a settlement of their long-festering conflict over the divided island of Cyprus and will sign a security charter in Istanbul at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He plans to confront Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin about the conflict in Chechnya and sit down with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to address the bloody conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Athens, Clinton will discuss increasing U.S. private investment in Greece. He will then address the people of Kosovo, whom he helped return to their homes, and attend a "pre-Thanksgiving" feast with U.S. troops serving as peacekeepers in the Yugoslav province.

White House officials acknowledge that such intractable problems as Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh will not be solved during this trip. But some foreign policy experts say that whether the president can fulfill those ambitions might be less important to his legacy than his high-profile involvement in hot spots around the world.

Historians might never link Clinton's foreign policy to an overarching doctrine or philosophy, but White House advisers hope that he will be remembered as a tireless peacemaker, even if he cannot claim an indisputable crowning achievement, said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.

No unifying doctrine

For all his globe-trotting, Clinton has yet to establish a unifying doctrine for his foreign policy that could help burnish a legacy tarred by scandal and indelibly marked by his impeachment, said Stephen Schlesinger, director of the World Policy Institute at New York City's New School, who has written widely on the Clinton foreign policy record.

Harry S. Truman is known for the containment of communism, Ronald Reagan for the rollback of Soviet influence and Jimmy Carter for the insertion of human rights into foreign policy. Clinton is difficult to peg.

"He has had important achievements all along his two terms, but there's no all-encompassing message he has delivered to his countrymen or the world," Schlesinger said. "He's scrambling to save his legacy in foreign policy."

This month, Clinton traveled to Norway to mark the fourth anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and to rekindle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

His September trip to a Pacific economic forum in New Zealand was meant to project an image of a peaceful, prosperous Pacific Rim.

There is a timetable for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could bring a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East by September, in time for Clinton to preside over a signing ceremony before leaving office. But administration officials are playing down any expectations of such a monumental accomplishment, turning their attention to European affairs.

It is not unusual for a chief executive in the twilight of his presidency to turn to foreign travel. By then, presidents have typically achieved the easier elements of their domestic agenda and are facing the task of pushing more difficult domestic proposals through a Congress marked by hardening partisan lines.

"They're lame ducks," Dallek said of such presidents. "Their capacity to wheel and deal and trade is diminished."

By contrast, the latitude that a president has in foreign policy and the esteem that a seasoned world leader might hold abroad usually prove seductive to a chief executive, said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

In 1959, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower began to assume a far higher profile in foreign policy, traveling to Europe, Africa and Asia that year, then touring Latin America during his final year in office.

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