With World Riveted On War, Some Nations Have Been Neglected

NO one is happier the war is over than Wendy Christian. The media relations manager with Save the Children, a relief organization, has been trying to stir interest about famine in northern Africa. In Sudan alone, several million people face possible starvation this year - a bigger tragedy than the great Ethiopian famine of 1985-86.

Yet while that debacle drew the attention of everyone from pop stars to politicians, Ms. Christian is having trouble rounding up a soundbite.

``Under normal circumstances, this is something the world would be interested in,'' she says.

Ms. Christian - or Sudan - hasn't been the only thing overlooked.

While the world has been transfixed by war, ethnic and political unrest has moved Yugoslavia closer to dissolution, civil war in Liberia has threatened the well-being of an estimated 750,000 children, Eastern Europe has stumbled in its drive to democracy and free-market economies, shooting has broken out in communist Albania, and Nicaragua - remember Nicaragua?

The preoccupation with the Middle East has drawn concern that the United States has missed out on other diplomatic opportunities and that some countries have taken advantage of the situation.

``I don't think there are missed opportunities in the sense that gates are closing that can't be reopened,'' says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. ``But there has been neglect.''

Many conservatives, in particular, are concerned about what they see as the lack of response by the Bush administration on the hard-line tilt by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the Baltics and other internal developments. They urge a rethinking of the US relationship with Moscow.

``Bush has been totally preoccupied with this war,'' says Kim Holmes, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. ``That is understandable. But we don't want to mortgage our Soviet policy to what we are trying to do in the Gulf.''

Others aren't so concerned about the lack of attention on Moscow. Mr. Steinbruner, for one, believes that if the US were too focused on internal shenanigans in the country, it would ``inevitably lead to an overreaction'' by US policymakers.

He and others, however, argue the US has not done enough to encourage the transition in Eastern Europe. Robert Hunter, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that the US spent as much in one day in the Gulf as it has put into helping the East bloc move from communism toward capitalism and democracy.

``We are not in the game in Eastern Europe,'' he says.

Other analysts believe several enduring regional disputes - including civil wars in Cambodia and Angola, and US-Soviet talks on Afghanistan - are at important phases, and greater attention might move them along.

In Latin America, Panama remains beset by problems and heavily dependent on the US one year after the invasion - as a December coup attempt foiled by US forces illustrated. The government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in Nicaragua has struggled through a tough inaugural year.

In Africa, civil wars in Liberia and Somalia, as well as the threat of mass famine in Sudan and Ethiopia, are probably garnering less attention than they normally would. For relief agencies, which depend on the spotlight of the press and public to raise funds and put pressure on governments to distribute aid, the vacuum has been particularly vexing.

In Sudan, not only has the Gulf diverted some attention it might have gotten, but the government there sympathized with Iraq in the war, which has undermined Western relief efforts.

``Most people don't even know such a large-scale famine is occurring,'' says Ms. Christian.

Actually, interest groups of all kinds have found it difficult to capture the ear of the press, public, and politicians. Holly Burkhalter, Washington representative for Human Rights Watch, contends there has not been enough outrage about recent human-rights abuses in Guatemala.

She believes more outcry would have been heard when the Chinese government recently sentenced two democracy advocates in connection with the Tiananmen Square protests, if the war in the Gulf had not been so consuming.

Some US officials dismiss the suggestion that the country has neglected other concerns around the globe.

``We really don't have any other world crises at the moment,'' says James Dobbins, a deputy assistant secretary of state. Even if there were, he says, we are a ``sophisticated government,'' capable of handling more than one thing at a time. ``I'm still able to fill eight hours of work,'' he says.

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