Sliding into home, Clinton looks abroad

PRESIDENT KEEPS BUSY DIPLOMATIC SCHEDULE, BUT WITH FEW VICTORIES NEAR. MIDEAST IS THE WILD CARD.

President Clinton is pursuing foreign policy with gusto.

Nigeria, Burundi, Egypt, and Colombia last week. A "millennium" three-day summit at the United Nations this week. Advisers to the president say he will be active on the diplomatic front until the very end. But the question is, will all the activity amount to much?

Of the three major issues facing Mr. Clinton this fall, only one - permanent normal trade relations with China - is expected to come about. The second big item - deployment of a national missile-defense system - has been postponed for the next president to decide. And the other significant issue - an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal - is a tossup at best.

That leaves the obligatory gatherings such as the Pacific economic summit in November, and bilateral meetings with other heads of state - of which Clinton will have plenty in New York this week.

"His options narrow as the end of his term approaches," says Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson center and the former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Some analysts bluntly state that what the president's really working on is positioning himself for a post-White House career as world peace negotiator.

"Clinton is going to use these last four months as he's used the whole summer - to launch into the post-presidential era," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-affairs expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution in California.

The president has stated his admiration of former President Jimmy Carter's second career as a world peacemaker.

Certainly peacemaking is high on Clinton's agenda. In his opening remarks at the United Nations today, Clinton is expected to address the challenges UN peacekeeping troops face, and will point out the need for "additional tools," according to one White House official.

Primary focus on Mideast

But there's no doubt that the president's top foreign-policy goal will be to try to secure an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

"His No. 1 priority clearly will be Mideast peace," says the official.

While in New York, the president will meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He will be assessing whether there's been enough progress since the Camp David talks of July to hold another tri-party summit that pushes for a final accord.

Middle East observers are not optimistic. The sticking point is the status of Jerusalem, which Mr. Arafat insists must be under Palestinian sovereignty.

"Unless there is going to be a breakthrough on Arafat's position, there's no place that these talks can go," says Bernard Reich, a Mideast specialist at George Washington University here.

China trade

Much more likely is a victory for the free-trade president on the China front. He'll be meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New York this week, and the primary topic will be trade - along with human rights.

The Senate is expected to vote on permanent normal trade relations between China and the US within the next 10 days. Although it seems likely to be approved, some senators are threatening to block it with filibusters and bill-killing amendments, and the president is being warned not to take passage for granted.

"He's going to have to work hard at that," says Mr. Hamilton.

While in New York, Clinton is also planning to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. That talk is expected to go much more smoothly now that the administration has decided to punt the missile-defense decision to the next president.

The Russians vehemently oppose a US missile-defense system, even the limited one put forth by the White House. Last Friday, Clinton announced the decision to postpone due to technological and diplomatic obstacles.

Still, there's a lot to do vis--vis Washington's relations with Moscow, including nuclear proliferation and economic issues, says the White House official.

As for how all this will affect the fall elections, analysts say Clinton's active foreign agenda keeps him right where Al Gore wants him: out of the way.

If there is a Mideast peace accord, the media would be all over Clinton, removing the spotlight from the campaigning Mr. Gore. Yet, analysts add, an agreement would be so momentous, it would reflect positively on the administration as a whole.

Perhaps more significant than what the president could orchestrate would be an "October surprise" over which he has little control, says James Thurber, at American University here. Hot spots to watch include Serbia, where President Slobodan Milosevic is running for reelection, as well as Iraq.

The classic example was the Iranian hostage crisis, which plagued Jimmy Carter as he ran for reelection against Ronald Reagan. The media kept a daily tally of the length of the Americans' captivity, and it wasn't until the day President Reagan was inaugurated that the hostages were finally released.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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