Washington Scandal Damage Respects No Borders

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the influence of the United States in foreign relations has suffered a severe blow from Lewinsky-gate.

President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony about his affair with the White House intern, and the report of special counsel Kenneth Starr is global news.

Mr. Clinton's testimony - unfortunately released at the same time he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 22 - and the Starr report have been displayed worldwide on the Internet, and carried extensively to international audiences by CNN and numerous US publications that circulate abroad.

Newspapers in most other countries have given it front-page play; comments have ranged from the titillation of London tabloids, to the European mocking of American prudery, to the sly digs of the Indian press at what has happened to "the self-appointed guardian of transnational codes of conduct." Conspiracy theories about Monica Lewinsky as an Israeli agent can be found in the Arab Middle East. But beyond the immediate, sometimes superficial reactions, many comments abroad reflect concern over damage to US leadership and influence.

Typical was a comment in the Israeli daily Haaretz: "America's current weakness is creating a strategic vacuum that has recently been filled by extremist groups that show no fear of a response from the US or the international community under American leadership."

Even if many abroad are baffled by the attention given to what might be considered a private affair and by the intricacies of the US legal system, they recognize that a serious obstacle has been created to the exercise of US influence. For governments, that recognition is undoubtedly reinforced by reports from foreign diplomats and business representatives who observe firsthand Washington's current distraction. Those reports will certainly emphasize the bitter partisan gridlock between the president and Congress that has marked the early days of inquiry into the Starr report and the expectations that neither the inquiry nor the crisis is likely to end quickly. The message will be "Don't expect any decisions on critical issues any time soon."

The crisis comes at a particularly unfortunate time. The UN General Assembly is opening in New York. World financial markets are in deep trouble. Conflicts, incipient conflicts, and human disasters cry for attention. Issues such as US funding for the UN and the International Monetary Fund, and the ratification of key treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban must await another time.

The reaction to the crisis also underscores the importance globally of the US presidency. Nations looking to the US for leadership expect the president to be personally involved and supportive. The secretaries of state and treasury may explain policies, but the question remains, "Where is the president?" The president, himself, speaks out, as he did last week on the global economy, but he's drowned out by the din of scandal.

US foreign policy frequently requires persuading other countries to take risky, politically unpopular decisions. The president's voice becomes especially important at such times. Over the years this has been particularly true in the Middle East; when the US leader is silent or absorbed in other matters, little positive happens.

To some extent, the current criticisms of US inaction need to be taken with reservations. Others look to Washington - even if, at times, reluctantly - for leadership because of America's economic and military strength and because of the inability of other nations to coalesce behind strong actions.

Many of those attributing current US weakness to the Lewinsky affair were impatient with Washington's reluctance to react strongly against rogue elements long before the Starr report. In their analyses, they tend to gloss over the concerns about regional reactions and the lack of international consensus that inhibit strong actions.

Without doubt, however, the undercurrent of conflict in Washington and the ridicule of the US president has had a weakening effect. Those in every region who have long resented and opposed the US presence may have been strengthened. Many of them are well aware of how even unfounded slander can bring down a political figure. And where earlier reports of Clinton's actions may have been dismissed as rumor, they now have the stature of an official report.

Friends of the US, whether in Moscow, Tehran, or Sarajevo will, for a while at least, have a more difficult time arguing for close ties with Washington.

* David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

US influence is seriously blocked - leadership on important issues must await another day.

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