Reticence in Foreign Affairs

For the White House, a standoffish policy is simply responding to what the public wants

OVER the last 10 days, President Clinton has talked so much about health care, welfare, and crime that his voice has dwindled to a raspy croak. But in all that time he's hardly mentioned Somalia.

Or Bosnia.

Or Yeltsin.

Or even France, which has been particularly De Gaullic lately as it blusters about United States inaction in the former Yugoslavia.

Sure, before that Mr. Clinton took a road trip through Europe focused on such eye-glazing topics as the future of NATO.

But since then, foreign policy has been conspicuous by its absence from Oval Office pronouncements. And events around the world make it clear that, in its second year, the Clinton presidency will continue to practice its standoffish attitude toward global involvement.

Consider Somalia.

* US troops continue to pack up as the March 31 deadline for their withdrawal approaches.

* They will be leaving the United Nations peacekeeping force alone to face a security situation that is clearly not stable.

* Large numbers of US troops, for instance, are traveling by ship from the port of Mogadishu to Mombasa, Kenya, for flights home. Pentagon officials admit that they can't fly directly out of Somalia because the situation there isn't safe enough for large undefended aircraft.

And every shot fired by warlord forces in Somalia has hit home in the Balkans.

Top-ranked Clinton officials have been very leery of US commitments in the former Yugoslavia, in part because of the strong US reaction to American combat deaths in Mogadishu skirmishes.

After 12 Marine deaths in an African firefight, Congress was in an uproar, forcing the administration's hand. The result was the March 31 pullout date.

One high, uniformed US official said recently that it would take an administration with much more ``self-assurance'' than this one to lead the US into the Balkans. France can press for a larger US involvement precisely because the French public is becoming pro-intervention with regard to a conflict not too far from its borders.

For the US, Bosnia remains the classic case of a small country that is far away, of which we know nothing.

And that is the administration's defense of its developing, reticent foreign doctrine: That is what the public wants.

Op-ed editors and European diplomats can clamor till the cheese curdles, but if the Vietnam War taught the Pentagon anything at all, it is that large troop deployments must have the clear support of the American people. Somalia, which at first seemed to be an easy military job, has only reinforced this notion.

Congressional Research Service analyst Stan Sloan has noted that foreign policy is an area in which many experts are peculiarly insensitive to public opinion, viewing it as something to be led rather than listened to. That's clearly not Clinton's way.

Quick expansion of NATO is a favorite of many pundits, who believe bringing Poland, the Czech Republic, et. al., into the Western alliance will promote the spread of freedom.

By contrast, the Clinton White House successfully pushed its go-slow Partnership for Peace approach at the recent NATO meetings.

That's because the administration believes that the US public does not want to commit to the armed defense of Romania, or Poland - at least not yet.

Getting them to spend money to defend Germany has been hard enough over the last 20 years, said outgoing Defense Secretary Les Aspin at a recent Monitor breakfast.

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