THE WORLD FROM...Washington

Visiting heads of state, hoping for more largess, leave empty-handed as US turns inward in election year

WITH the US presidential election-year focus on the nation's domestic agenda, visiting dignitaries from Eastern Europe to Asia complain about a distracted Washington audience.

They watch with fascination and some frustration as the Bush administration and congressional lawmakers scurry around town brokering deals that are designed to carry candidates through the November election.

Political primary elections have quickly reordered American thinking. Candidates' pledges to create more jobs and a higher standard of living set the tone for America first, and the rest of the world second.

The much talked-about but yet-unrealized peace dividend - what the US government expects to save by cutting the defense budget - has already been apportioned by presidential hopefuls and special interests on Capitol Hill. They promise the money will go toward job training, nutrition, and education, or middle-class tax cuts, infrastructure repair, health care, and drug prevention. The list is long and seems to entertain whatever the voters want. What it doesn't include is much assistance to the beleaguere d former Soviet republics, or other foreign initiatives.

European visitors talk about the US turning inward - away from the financial and security obligations Washington has customarily met around the globe. Particularly troubling for German and French leaders is Washington's resistance to offering large-scale financial aid for the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Equally unsettled are the former Soviet satellites. A host of Bulgarian and Czechoslovak ministers have come through town in recent weeks, all admonishing US policymakers to transfer fun ds to help stabilize the volatile CIS.

East European environmentalists convened at the European Institute here to discuss prospects for US help in combating the Communists' legacy of deadly pollution. During a recent meeting between George Bush and Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the Nordic leader tried to set off alarms about nuclear-power safety in the former communist bloc, and to engage Washington's assistance. Mr. Bildt senses the developing-world fears about the current anti-foreign-aid mood among US lawmakers, and that their program s may be budgeted out.

Tough talk on trade from Republican Patrick Buchanan and several Democratic challengers concerns Tokyo. Japan's chief worry is that creeping US protectionism will mean a serious backlash against Japanese imports.

African officials who boast of their governments' new political reforms lament that most Washington officials can't find their countries on the map.

A prominent Iranian oil executive here for a global energy conference speaks wistfully of his country's strong interest in improved US-Iranian commercial ties. He adds with a smile, "I know the timing is wrong. You're in one of your election modes, when government is paralyzed every four years."

Syria, once called the spoiler of previous efforts for US brokered Arab-Israeli talks, is reportedly worried about the fate of the Middle East Peace negotiations. Despite diplomatic protests to the contrary from the Syrian delegation head Mouaffak al-Allaf, well-placed Arab sources say he's anxious about whether Bush will win the election, continue the thaw between Washington and Damascus, and keep the peace talks on track.

Every globe-trotter seems to have a distinct purpose, but they all share the same realization. Nothing gets decided during this election year. Unless, of course, it concerns America first.

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