Clinton Team Struggles With Foreign Policy

Search is on for `heavy hitter' at State, but critics say more presidential attention needed

IN a town where style and substance often merge, the Clinton administration is fighting an uphill battle to prove that it has a coherent foreign policy and that its foreign policy team is up to the task of carrying it out.

President Clinton continues to voice support for his secretaries of state and defense, but as long as the administration has to spend time denying that one or the other might resign, he will not appear to gain the upper hand on foreign affairs.

The forced departure last week of the State Department's No. 2 official, Clifton Wharton, seems to have done little to stanch the flow of criticism. The exit of Dr. Wharton, who functioned as an administrator and not a policymaker, could be attributed to the usual shakedown of personnel that occurs in the first year of a presidency, say foreign affairs analysts. In other words, some appointees simply don't work out.

The administration has denied that Wharton was a sacrificial lamb thrown out to appease the critics of policy on Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Haiti standoff, Page 2.) But given the names that are being floated as possible successors to Wharton - all heavy hitters in the foreign policymaking establishment - it is clear the administration is seeking to shore up its team.

Just as the arrival of David Gergen, a master at spin and imagemaking, helped get the White House's communications operations on track, so the arrival of a strong deputy at the State Department, on the model of a Lawrence Eagleburger, could add more gravitas to a foreign affairs team that is operating on the defensive. And Mr. Gergen himself has said he will spend more time on foreign affairs.

But a stronger deputy to Secretary of State Warren Christopher may not address what some analysts see as the core problem: a lack of organization and focus.

``There is no one with quasi-presidential weight as an expounder of policy,'' says Fred Holborn, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. ``That means every issue has to be talked through afresh.... I don't think Clinton lacks interest in foreign affairs. But he lacks time.''

In some ways, President Clinton suffers particularly from comparisons with his predecessor, who put foreign policy front and center and whose team of advisers was especially close to him. Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was often at President Bush's side, even on domestic travels. And Mr. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker III, was one of his closest friends and advisers. Mr. Baker was also a master at working the press.

The Clinton foreign policy team also may be suffering from too much honesty. Early in the administration, when Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff said in an off-the-record speech to reporters that the US would be limiting its role in the world, the administration publicly distanced itself from the remarks. But Mr. Tarnoff is still in his job.

``If that statement had been wildly off the mark, Tarnoff would have either been fired or moved to another job,'' says a foreign-policy aide to a Democratic congressman.

In recent days, top officials, from the president on down, have sought repeatedly to create order in a foreign-policy environment that lacks the kind of easy structure the cold war imposed.

In congressional testimony earlier this month, Secretary Christopher ranked the six top foreign-policy priorities of the administration. The first on the list comes as no surprise: boosting US economic interests abroad, with the North American Free Trade Agreement as the cornerstone, followed by trade with Asia, which Clinton will address this week at an Asian trade summit in Seattle.

The other priorities are: supporting reform in the former Soviet Union, renewing NATO, speeding up the Mideast peace process, and curbing weapons proliferation.

These are traditional foreign policy issues, and the administration has won fairly high marks for its handling of them. On Friday, Clinton had a high-profile meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in part to bolster Israeli public support for the peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But regarding other problem areas that have commanded US attention - namely Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia - Christopher has made it clear that they are of secondary importance to the US because they do not affect vital interests. It is that cool projection of lawyerly detachment that has gotten him in some trouble with his audience.

Christopher makes no apologies for not being a Henry Kissinger. And it is debatable whether that is necessary.

``The key issue right now seems to be to get a big thinker [in the administration], someone to say, `Here's what we need to do in the post- cold-war environment,' '' says Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. ``They don't have a Kissinger. But I don't know if that's good or bad. A clear policy is a set of dos and don'ts, and sometimes ambiguity is necessary.''

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