WASHINGTON -- With the nation preoccupied with the legal-electoral-political presidential crisis, U.S. foreign policy achievements ballyhooed in the past eight years are evaporating.
Nobody seems to have noticed -- certainly not the Clinton administration, nor the Congress. Clearly not the American media, which spends more air time and ink on a meaningless low-speed truck transport of ballots in Florida than on the low-grade war in Colombia or the endemic corruption in Bosnia.
Start with the obvious. Not only has the Middle East peace process broken down, but the United States has lost its undisputed role as honest broker and peacemaker. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who used to place his trust in "my friend in the White House," now is calling for the Russians, the United Nations, the European Union -- anybody -- to take the mediator role out of the exclusive hands of the United States.
That's important. The traditional supporters of the United States in the Arab world -- principally Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- have begun to openly criticize the American supply of arms and money to support Israel following the widespread showing in the Arab world of videotapes of the new Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
The new element of non-governmental Arabic-language satellite TV stations has created the equivalent of then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's strident pan-Arabic radio stations in the 1960s. This time, instead of arousing the Arab streets, the broadcasts are roiling the computerized middle class, as well as disrupting the stock markets.
And then there's the oil market. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who is gifted at getting under American skin, is a maestro at playing with his oil taps -- now turning them on, in defiance of U.N. sanctions, now turning them off, to trouble the world oil markets. As an added thumb of the nose, he has insisted that his oil must be purchased for European Union euros rather than the usual U.S. dollars.
Baghdad airport is open again, spiting the United States and the United Nations. Arab diplomats and businessmen are trooping in. Mr. Hussein -- to use former Secretary of State George Shultz's phrase -- is no longer "in a box."
Of course, there's always the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic, despite the U.S.-led effort to overthrow him, is not gone, nor is he any closer to The Hague war crimes tribunal. In fact, he's planning a comeback. His successor, who has good political instincts and was brought to office with the help of a U.S.-financed pro-democracy movement, thinks it would be politically unwise to meet with American officials. He refused a face-to-face meeting in Europe with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The European Union is restive. It is understandably cranky about isolationist tendencies it sees in the American Congress. It is also annoyed about the constant transatlantic trade squabbles over everything from bananas to software and resentful over Washington's apparent inability to live up to its own ambitions on environmental issues such as global warming.
As a result of long-resisted French urging, the Europeans are finally getting serious about their own military force, something that used to give U.S. officials ulcers, and still does.
One of Vice President Al Gore's selling points in the election campaign was his expertise in dealing with foreign policy, especially in his specialty of being the main man for dealing with Russia and the former Soviet Union. In the past year he was otherwise occupied.
That pipeline has closed down. At last report, the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was not answering Ms. Albright's telephone calls and was actively trying to insert himself into the former U.S. monopoly of the Israeli-Palestinian mediation. On the flimsy pretext of the violation of secrecy in an agreement with the United States, the Russians have begun to push sales of missile technology to Iran, to Washington's intense annoyance.
Things are not much better in Asia, with China now openly treating the United States as a potential foe. With Indonesia once more on the brink of ethnic violence in the pattern of East Timor's recent murderous past, the U.S. ability to wield moral influence seems to have evaporated.
Any administration, in its lame-duck days, will show signs of failing strength and influence. But this administration -- perhaps because of the political uncertainty brought on by the difficult, drawn-out presidential election -- has gone into a spectacular tailspin in terms of its foreign policy goals.
It is more than politically embarrassing. It is potentially dangerous to U.S. interests around the world and, if those interests mean anything, to the world.
By the time a new administration gets up to speed, there will have been many months of U.S. inattention to events around the world, creating a vacuum of leadership. Diplomats have been on the job during that time, but they cannot operate without political leadership.
Jim Anderson is a Washington-based correspondent who has covered politics and foreign policy for 30 years.