WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's way of talking about foreign affairs disturbs many professionals in the field.
It isn't necessarily that they disagree with White House strategies for handling world crises, though some have problems there, too. It's the Clinton penchant for overblown, campaign-style rhetoric when discussing foreign issues that they judge troublesome.
Thus, when Clinton said flatly last year that North Korea would not be allowed to get a nuclear bomb, Washington diplomats cringed. Many knew full well that Pyongyang probably already had one. When the White House said recently of Haiti's military leadership that ``it's time for them to go,'' more than a few critics thought the phrase contained a tinge of pleading.
Bosnian Serbs have proved a string of United States ultimatums hollow. All this brave talk with no action, say analysts, means that American credibility in the world is being undermined and that tyrants may think that US threats can be safely ignored.
``In foreign policy you have to mean what you say,'' says Zalmay Khalilzad, a Rand Corp. senior analyst and former Department of Defense officials in the Bush administration.
``Credibility,'' in this diplomatic context, is a mixture of fear, respect, and uncertainty. It means other countries have to believe that you have the power, in military and economic terms, to do what you say.
A nation's basic values, its leader's personality, its past practices and public opinion are all part of the credibility equation. Idle threats do not deter any rogue for long.
``Bombast without credibility, far from deterring, can create exactly the opposite effect if its recipient calls the bluff,'' notes Congressional analyst John Collins in ``Grand Strategy'' (1973).
Bosnia is a case study in what happens when bombast passes for policy. The West has tolerated many things in Bosnia that it once ruled out, including ethnic cleansing and the division of the country along ethnic lines. The US is far from the only nation that tolerated this mess, of course. Europe is as much, if not more, seen as bearing responsibility.
``The credibility of European leaders in an age of midgets is no better,'' says Lincoln Bloomfield, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``It's a general problem of what I call moral flabbiness and political cowardice.''
US policy toward Haiti and Somalia has to a lesser extent also been marked by big talk and little sticks. In Somalia, the US may have inadvertently taught potential rogues the lesson that causing a few casualites can convince America to pull out entirely.
The problem is not necessarily lack of action. It is a mismatch between action and rhetoric, and a tendency to talk about all problems as if US national interests are the same in all of them.
The US has at times spoken as if Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia are all vital regions, notes Mr. Khalilzad. Then it has behaved as if they are not. Khalilzad now worries that this inconsistency will affect what he judges is a more profound predicament: North Korea.
``North Korea is different than those other crises. This is a real crisis, in the sense that it involves a region clearly vital to the US interest,'' he says.
PYONGYANG may well assume that US inconsistency in other regions applies to it as well, and that Washington does not really mean it when it says it will stoop to economic sanctions, or worse, to stop further nuclear proliferation in North Korea. That would be a miscalculation on North Korea's part, judges Khalilzad. But he notes that miscalculation is often at the root of international conflict.
Saddam Hussein might have thought that, in the wake of the US invasions of Panama and Grenada, he himself would not be able to take Kuwait with impunity. Instead, he may have looked at an example closer to home: Lebanon, where President Reagan sent in the Marines with great fanfare and then removed them quickly in the wake of the terrorist bombing of their barracks.
On the other hand, it is possible for credibility to become the hobgoblin of National Security Council staffers. If an administration becomes obsessed with proving its toughness it may lose sight of what US interests really are.
Thus in the 1950s the US approached the brink of nuclear war with China over small islands held by the Nationalist Chinese government off the mainland. According to some accounts, US officials felt they needed to rattle the nuclear sword once in a while, or their whole defense policy might lose credibility.
``Credibility is what you yourself make of it,'' says John Lewis Gaddis, a historian at Ohio University. ``A lot of it has to do with where you put your credibility on the line.''