Strained US Relations Vex British Officials

Major aims to bolster tie with Clinton at NATO-EU summit

PRIME Minister John Major will set out to repair what Downing Street advisers reluctantly concede is a strained relationship with the Clinton administration when he meets the president in Brussels Jan. 10-11.

He will attempt to overcome a lingering residue of bitterness among senior White House staffers that officials of Britain's ruling Conservative Party worked hard to prevent President Clinton's election in November 1992.

When the two leaders attend a NATO summit in the Belgian capital, Mr. Major will also try to set the record straight on two key policy issues that threaten to undermine the so-called ``special relationship'' between London and Washington: Britain's failure in 1993 to give whole-hearted backing to Clinton's policy toward Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Anglo-Irish peace initiative in Northern Ireland.

Major, Downing Street officials say, wants to explain more fully to the president why Britain feels bound to protect the interests of Northern Ireland's Protestant community while at the same time giving Ulster Nationalists, including the Irish Republican Army, an opportunity to enter talks on the future of the province.

On Bosnia, the prime minister will seek to justify Britain's opposition to direct intervention in the ethnic conflict.

Downing Street officials say he may also foreshadow at least a partial withdrawal of British troops from Bosnia who are currently engaged in United Nations humanitarian operations, on the grounds that other countries should take up some of the burden.

Major's hopes of achieving a warm relationship with Clinton, comparable to that enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan and George Bush, were dashed even before the Democratic president took office.

During the 1992 White House race, the Conservative Party sent a team of political strategists to the United States.

They advised the Bush campaign on ways to head off a Clinton victory. British officials also searched government files referring to Clinton's activities in the 1960s, when he was a student in Britain and was opposed to the Vietnam War.

``The personal relationship between Mr. Major and Mr. Clinton is amicable,'' a Conservative Party source says, ``but suffers from the feeling among some of the president's people that the Conservatives would have preferred to have gone on dealing with Mr. Bush.''

Last year Major had only one full meeting with Clinton.

Officials had hoped that the prime minister would receive an invitation to the White House before the Brussels summit, but none was extended.

During the Reagan-Bush years such invitations were virtually routine and enabled Mrs. (now Baroness) Thatcher to establish a close working relationship with both Republican presidents.

A Conservative member of Parliament speculated that ``the omission [last] year may be due to White House advisers unfriendly toward Britain failing to put a Major-Clinton get-together on the president's schedule.''

The official line in Downing Street is that nothing is wrong with the special relationship that cannot be fixed by a reasonably lengthy face-to-face encounter between the two leaders.

Downing Street sources say privately that the prime minister is realistic enough to accept that he is unlikely to get on intimate terms with Clinton.

They concede that the special personal chemistry between Thatcher and Mr. Reagan was unique.

The sources stress that Major and Clinton have respect for each other and exchange views regularly on the telephone.

In London diplomatic circles, however, British criticism of important aspects of the Clinton administration's foreign policy is widely discussed.

The British Foreign Office has made it plain that it thinks US policy toward Somalia has been inept.

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has made little secret of his belief that Clinton could have handled US policy toward Bosnia-Herzegovina a good deal better.

Britain and France in effect blocked Clinton administration attempts to bring about direct intervention in Bosnia, including air attacks on Bosnian Serb positions.

Major's task of rebuilding relations across the Atlantic may have been made no easier by a forthright attack last month on the Clinton administration by Lord David Owen, the former British foreign secretary who is now the European Union's peace mediator for Bosnia.

Lord Owen told a Dutch magazine, Elseviers, that the war in Bosnia would have been over by now if George Bush had been reelected in 1992. Instead, he said, Clinton had opposed the Vance-Owen peace plan, with the result that the fighting had been prolonged.

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