As November Nears, Clinton Touts Foreign Policy Acumen

On sensitive matters, White House pursues 'diplomacy of silence'

As the US election season approaches, the White House is gearing up an aggressive "accentuate the positive" campaign on its foreign policy.

Yet doing so will require some difficult tradeoffs. The White House is trying to play down the behavior of some important allies in order to support political leaders it considers essential to peace.

The delicate dance it is carrying out will be evident when Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres visits Washington today. The White House can underscore its special regard for Mr. Peres, who next month faces an important national election of his own.

It can also point to the US-brokered accord in Lebanon last Friday, under which Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas agreed not to attack civilians as part of their ongoing war. But the limited agreement won't stifle the criticism the Clinton administration has come under for not condemning Israel's latest bombing campaign in southern Lebanon.

The White House practiced a similar diplomacy of silence earlier this month in Moscow with another key ally.

With Russian President Boris Yeltsin facing a tough election in May against an orthodox Communist who worries just about everyone in Washington, President Clinton seemed even to approve Russia's brutal 16-month campaign against Chechnya, comparing the war to America's Civil War.

Peres and Mr. Yeltsin are crucial players in US hopes for stability and peace, who both face elections that could jeopardize that hope.

Yet foreign policy experts say White House optimism, as well as its diplomacy of silence, relates as much to the president's own election strategy, and a White House desire to keep alive a recent series of perceived successes in places like the Middle East, Haiti, and Bosnia.

"For Clinton, the election is bottom line," says one senior Washington analyst. "He will bring up Haiti and Bosnia and say, 'You may not like what we are doing there. But we are doing something.'"

On Friday, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies gave reporters a taste of election season affirmation, using superlatives like "a triumph of American diplomacy" to characterize the Lebanon accord achieved by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Earlier in the year Canadian Ambassador James Blanchard set a similar tone, referring to Mr. Clinton's approach as a foreign policy "where the extraordinary has become commonplace."

Even some GOP strategists admit the White House has improved on what seemed early in Clinton's tenure to be a chaotic foreign policy, characterized by the president's own lack of interest in the subject.

Yet last summer, in deciding to bomb Serb positions in Bosnia, broker a peace deal in Dayton, Ohio, and lead a NATO mission to the Balkans, the White House removed for the time being one of the GOP's likely campaign issues. Lately, Republican salvos have been relegated to somewhat cloudy investigations of White House acquiescence in the shipment of Iranian arms to Bosnia.

One Dole official feels Clinton has created an image of himself as a peacemaker abroad by putting off tough issues like Chechnya, and Chinese and North Korean saber rattling. "He's kicking the can down the road, cutting deals we will have to pay for later," says the official.

Analysts say the White House is counting on an American electorate not interested in foreign details. The average voter wants some sense that the world is safe for now and that barbarism is being addressed.

A former high-ranking State Department official who feels the recent White House silence on Chechnya, including the recent death of Chechen leader Dudayev killed when Russian missiles tracked his cellular phone signal, is a serious mistake.

But the president won't pay at the polls, he says: "The administration is hugely vulnerable on an intellectual and policy level on Russia. But not politically. Ask most Americans about Dudayev and they think he played second base for the Red Sox; say Chechnya, and they say 'Gesundheit.'"

Indeed, most threats are regarded as midterm issues: Russian imperialism is growing, but slowly. Chinese ambitions, including saber-rattling and nuclear development, continue, but are not acute.

With NATO troops in Bosnia, virulent nationalism on Europe's periphery is muted. Radical Islam grows, but is kept in check by state governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

The problem is what to do when allies go astray. "The Israeli airstrikes [were] out of control," says John Steinbruner, head of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "You can't be silent in situations like these."

Others point out that the US is looked to, particularly after the cold war, as signaling what standards and norms of behavior are acceptable.

For Harley Balzer, head of Russian area studies at Georgetown University, Clinton's comparing Chechnya to the US Civil War is "worse than saying nothing. It is backsliding."

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