Ticklish Transition Time In US Foreign Relations

TO see power already flowing to President-elect Clinton, look at how quickly other nations have stopped importuning President Bush.

Take the Middle East peace process. Creating it was one of the Bush administration's genuine accomplishments. But with the latest round wrapped up in Washington last week some participants are now talking past Bush, toward Little Rock.

On Friday, for instance, Arab negotiators said Clinton would have to get Israel to come to terms over land and Palestinian rights - or they might pull out of the talks.

"Three or four months after the arrival of the new president to the White House, I think if the Arabs see the rounds are continuing without progress, then it would be time to reconsider the whole thing," said Muwaffaq al-Allaf, head of the Syrian delegation, at a news conference.

Arabs consider Clinton more pro-Israeli than Bush, and in voicing their concerns early they are undoubtedly undertaking something of an attempt at preemptive posturing. Still, the tone was striking, the more so because the talks are scheduled for at least one more round, in December, before Inauguration Day.

The United States, Russia, and other nations must "assume their role" and cajole Israel into concessions, said chief Palestinian negotiator Haidar Abdel-Shafi.

Would the Arabs actually pull out? Perhaps. A well-informed Arab diplomat in Washington, however, discounts the notion. "The peace process is already a reality in the Middle East," says this source, who wishes to remain nameless. "It has its own mechanism and well-delineated channels."

"The danger is that without a dynamic, active, energetic role by the US, especially in bridging gaps, the process will be very slow and very vulnerable," continues the Arab diplomat.

Thus the coming December round may largely mark time, giving the appearance of momentum while all parties await the arrival of the new president on stage.

THE president-elect's own behavior toward other nations is also an indicator of the steady flow of power into his hands. During the campaign, sharp charges paid off; after the election the realities of geopolitics take over, and with them the knowledge that even small rhetorical slips on foreign policy can have large ramifications.

Thus in his swing through Washington last week, Clinton sounded far more measured about one of the few areas of foreign policy where he has voiced strong opinions: China.

During the campaign Clinton accused President Bush of "coddling dictators" with his policies on China, and said he himself would oppose Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status for China unless its human-rights record improved. Last week, Clinton dropped the "coddling" attack, credited Bush for "tougher" policies toward Beijing that were in fact implemented long before the election, and said "we have a big stake in not isolating China."

Clinton said he stood by the values he had expressed about China, but he committed himself to no course of action.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the president-elect has changed his mind about the China policy he'll pursue, points out Congressional Research Service foreign policy expert Robert Sutter. It just means he's left all his options open - and that's good.

"One of the dangers of being a president-elect is you get committed to some line of approach," Mr. Sutter says.

President Bush has opposed revoking China's MFN status, saying that lines of communication to Beijing need to remain open if the US is to have any influence at all. That issue will certainly come looking for the new President Clinton in the spring, when China's MFN comes up again. The issue will be what kind of restrictions, if any, Clinton would establish for MFN renewal.

Trade figures for 1992, issued in February, could well complicate the situation. Current estimates project a massive $15 billion US trade deficit with China.

That China is a bit nervous about what the new US leader might do is hinted at by one of the latest tomes issued by the Yiwen Military Publishing House: "New US President Clinton." The book, among other things, describes the former Governor of Arkansas' "disposition."

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