DURING his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton emphasized that a linchpin of his foreign policy would be strong support for strengthening democratic institutions around the world.
President Clinton now has a golden opportunity to put some money where his promises have been: Kenya. The new foreign-policy team in Washington - and the media - are heavily focused, as they should be, on such hot spots as Bosnia, Somalia, and Russia. But it is in nations like Kenya, where the struggle for genuine democratic and economic reforms is now joined, that the United States has an opportunity to consolidate some solid advancement.
Unfortunately, that opportunity is not being seized. The State Department is watching and waiting for "signals." The US may now be unwittingly slowing the pace of reforms in Kenya. In a 24-month period, Washington suspended much of its foreign military and economic assistance to Kenya and changed the "rules of the game."
In November 1990, President Bush signed legislation that established four criteria Kenya needed to meet before economic and security assistance could be resumed. In March 1991 the administration, in response to congressional concerns, expanded the foreign aid suspension to include "prior year" security assistance appropriations. In November of 1991, the US - in concert with other donor nations and multilateral organizations - suspended close to $350 million in economic assistance pending a series of addi tional economic and "good governance" reforms on the part of Kenya.
One month later Congress passed legislation expanding the original four criteria to five. Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, testifying in June 1992 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added yet another dimension by explicitly linking the resumption of aid to the holding of elections and the acceptance of international election monitors.
Finally, last October Congress passed yet another piece of legislation further changing the steps Kenya must take before security assistance can be resumed.
As seen from Nairobi, the challenge of trying to "satisfy" Uncle Sam is like playing football with the goal line moved farther back after each series of downs.
Kenya is by no means an open, pluralistic society when measured against the American yardstick. But it certainly is when measured against most of its African neighbors. Most important, Kenya is moving in the right direction. The government has released its political prisoners (condition one). It has made significant strides in improving the treatment of prisoners (condition two), and taken significant steps to restore the independence of the judiciary (condition three) and restore freedom of expression a nd ease freedom of movement (conditions four and five).
To understand just how far Kenya has come, it is instructive to remember that opposition political parties were illegal in Kenya only 15 months ago. Yet on Dec. 29 the nation held multiparty elections.
Incumbent President Daniel arap Moi retained power with a plurality of 36 percent. The three major opposition candidates received a combined total of 63 percent.
Was the election totally free from corruption and administrative problems? It was not. Was it a major first step on the road to genuine democracy? Without a doubt. President Moi was returned to power, not because of any ballot rigging but because the opposition was so splintered. That same election saw the defeat of 15 members of Moi's cabinet; opposition parties captured 44 percent of the seats in Kenya's parliament - the highest opposition representation of any legislative body in Africa.
Yet weeks have passed while the State Department "analyzes the situation" and continues to withhold important economic and security assistance from Kenya.
In addition to fostering democracy and economic growth, there is now another US interest in Kenya: Somalia. There are more than 300,000 Somali refugees in northern Kenya, and Moi's government is struggling at great cost to care for that tide of humanity.
Kenya provided the port facilities and airfields from which the US launched its military airlift of food into Somalia last summer. Looking to the future, Mr. Cohen said: "Following the departure of the US military and various short-term relief organizations, it will be the responsibility of the Kenyan government to be the first to respond to any future crises.... Now is the time to encourage and prepare the Kenyans to fully embrace that responsibility."
Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher have an opportunity to send a signal quickly and clearly. Releasing already-appropriated but long-impounded aid to Kenya will signal continuing strong American interest in and support of multi-party democracy in Kenya. That process only begins with an election, and the US needs to promote further gains by shifting its approach from the "stick" to the "carrot."
Continuing US assistance will help Kenya play a stabilizing role in the Horn of Africa. Finally, such a decision will demonstrate that the Clinton administration is really serious about building democracy around the world.