Foreign Policy Crises Test Domestic Policy President

IT was a humbling week for President Clinton.

The man who was on a roll as the health-care president came face to face with another part of his job description: leader of the free world.

For the first time in Mr. Clinton's presidency, foreign policy crises dominated center stage for an entire week and put the president on the defensive about his limited foreign policy experience. The specter of foreign involvements past - Vietnam, Beirut, Panama - haunted his footsteps as he hurried back to Washington from California to consult with advisers on Somalia.

By week's end, he was fighting accusations in a letter on Somalia from 65 Republican members of Congress that an ``indecisive and naive'' approach to foreign policy could jeopardize America's international standing.

By contrast, the first crisis of the week - the political showdown in Moscow - put Clinton in a favorable light.

He stood by Russian President Boris Yeltsin early and decisively in his clash with hard-line members of parliament, a stand that proved correct after Mr. Yeltsin triumphed.

Even if the Russian crisis was an internal matter in which foreign opinion had little, if any, influence, Clinton could point to a record of relationship-building with the Russians that began early in his presidency. His Vancouver, British Columbia, summit with Yeltsin set a tone of cooperation between the two leaders, as have Defense Secretary Les Aspin's meetings with his Russian counterpart, Pavel Grachev.

Clinton has conducted United States-Russian relations ``wisely,'' says Fred Ikle, a former top Defense Department official. ``He hasn't made any apparent errors.''

Somalia, however, is ``probably the one error in foreign policy he has committed - namely, the excessive commitment to United Nations-governed decisionmaking,'' Mr. Ikle continues. This led to ill-considered support of the Security Council's decision to try to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, he says. ``They should have learned from the indictment of [Panamanian leader Manuel] Noriega,'' who proved nearly impossible to catch.

The American public had paid little attention to the fact that the Somalia action that began in November as a humanitarian mission was transformed in May into a broader, less-defined UN effort at nation-building.

But the sight of a dead US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu, after the killing Sunday of 12 US servicemen, brought the issue into American living rooms, congressional offices, and to the doorstep of the White House.

Thus was born the first foreign policy crisis of Clinton's aggressively domestic-oriented presidency. By week's end, Clinton tried to extricate himself from difficulties by setting a definite deadline of March 31 for withdrawal and putting 1,700 more troops in to finish the task.

In general, the challenge for Clinton - the leader of the only superpower in a post-cold-war world - is that ``we are creating precedents every time we act,'' says Chester Crocker, the top State Department official on Africa under President Bush. ``We can't pretend there's no foreign policy. Clinton is learning that. Bush knew that.''

Mr. Crocker, now an international-relations professor at Georgetown University here, says Clinton assembled ``one of the finest collections of [resumes] that's been assembled'' to handle foreign policy. But he has not ``made clear to his deputies what he wants to do. He has to mediate the differences in his own ranks.''

S for the establishment of an overarching philosophy by which to define a Clinton foreign policy, Crocker argues that the call for ``enlargement'' - ``the enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies,'' as national-security adviser Anthony Lake said in a recent speech - doesn't constitute a foreign policy.

``It's a wish list,'' he says, though some analysts see it as more concrete than Bush's ``new world order'' rhetoric.

Ikle says a grand new blueprint for foreign policy isn't necessarily needed now. What is important, he says, is to help Russian democrats, involve UN peacekeeping where feasible, and work on relations with China.

(Ikle and other analysts, though, cannot understand why Clinton immediately put in motion plans for resumed nuclear testing in light of China's test this week. ``It seemed [to be] a reaction to criticism that wasn't forthcoming,'' Ikle says.)

If anyone deserves to be frustrated by the week's events, it's the former Bush administration, which put foreign policy front and center.

``It is a traditional American mistake'' to play down foreign policy, Mr. Bush's former national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, told reporters.

``But if you look at the consequences in this century that have arisen from the US turning its back on a world situation ... it seems to me that concentration on foreign policy to prevent a World War II, a cold war ..., what have you, is worth an enormous investment.''

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