WASHINGTON — A HANDSHAKE of peace for the Middle East. Chaos in the Kremlin. Good-deed-as-quagmire in Somalia. Bosnia's slow slide into oblivion.
For a president who won office on a promise to focus on America first, Bill Clinton has faced foreign affairs that daunt the world's most skilled diplomats. He has found out the hard way that no matter how much he wants to work on health care or the economy, the problems of the world turn up every day at the Oval Office door, loudly demanding a meeting.
As a candidate, Clinton's foreign policy positions might have been summed up as ``just like George Bush's - only less so.'' As chief executive, Clinton has at times seemed to bounce from international crisis to crisis. He has learned key lessons on the job, such as the fact that European allies sometimes like to be asked and told what to do at the same time.
Now the administration is attempting to spell out the vision that animates its dealings with the rest of the world.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly today, Clinton is expected to emphasize that he is more committed than his predecessors to working within such multilateral institutions as UN peacekeeping operations.
At the same time, he will try to reassure Americans that he is not handing US troops over to incompetent international commanders and that the US is not taking on the role of global policeman. Clinton Outlines `Enlargement' Policy
And he will try to put crises such as Somalia, Bosnia, and UN peacekeeping in a larger context. Administration officials, in recent days, have been painting their overall strategy as one of ``enlargement'' - enlarging the circle of democratic nations committed to free markets.
They clearly hope that ``enlargement,'' as a buzz word, will match the success of ``containment,'' the strategy that guided policy toward the Soviet Union for so many years.
Such marketing is necessary to fight what officials see as perhaps the most fundamental foreign policy dilemma facing the US. This is not whether to pull out of Somalia, or go it alone in the Balkans. It is that staple question: Will the US be internationalist, or turn its back and go it alone in the world?
``In many ways, we're returning to the divisions and debates about our role in the world that are as old as our republic itself,'' said White House national security adviser Anthony Lake last week, in a speech intended to set the stage for the president's UN appearance today.
``Enlargement,'' as defined by Mr. Lake, has four aspects: the strengthening of major market democracies; the development of free markets and democracy in newly free and less-developed nations; defense against attacks from those nations that remain hostile to the spread of democracy; and humanitarian aid.
Containment was a defensive strategy, designed to check the expansion of a Soviet regime seen as threatening to US security. Enlargement, by contrast, seems more offensive, in a relatively benign use of the word. As Lake was careful to note, ``we do not seek to expand the reach of our institutions by force.''
But this strategy, by itself, is an incomplete answer to one of the most difficult aspects of the post-cold-war world. With containment, the location of American interests was usually somewhat clear. The stakes were high.
With enlargement, it is not so obvious how many foreign events affect the US. The points of opportunity are more difficult to define. There is, as Lake said, ``the question of where.'' Does Somalia fit into ``enlargement''? Bosnia? What about the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, where Eduard Shevardnadze, a man greatly admired in Washington, is barely clinging to power as civil war rages around him?
Lake pointed to a number of ``wheres,'' places the US can make a difference, including Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the old Soviet bloc, as well as South Africa and Nigeria. But it is the more diffuse ``where'' of US involvement in UN peacekeeping that perhaps now most troubles the public. As US casualties mount in Somalia, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright last week laid out some rules for American involvement in such operations.
Missions must be clear, with a cease-fire in place, Ambassador Albright said. Necessary money and people must be available. An end point of UN participation must be identifiable.
But as Somalia shows, a place where these questions appear answerable can mutate into something more dangerous very quickly.
The Clinton administration has already backed off plans for greater involvement in UN forces, with perhaps a dedicated US peacekeeping unit. Whether the president will further define the US role in this regard remains to be seen.
In her speech at the National War College last week, Albright stressed that the US wants some changes made in UN peacekeeping practices. Though she declined to list specifics, she did say the UN should better coordinate with its peacekeeping operations and use better-trained military personnel.
Albright also said that the US might have a special role to play in regard to such specialized activities as logistics, communications, and intelligence.