WHILE the Whitewater scandal is grabbing headlines these days, it remains to be seen how it will play out and how much it will damage the president.
Unfortunately, in another, far different area of activity - conduct of US foreign policy - the Clinton administration's performance is mostly an open book. The story told is one of an almost unbroken series of missteps. The costs are already substantial, and they have the potential of becoming catastrophically high.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher's handling of China policy is the latest example of painfully flawed judgment. He insisted on going ahead with his trip to Beijing against the clearly stated wishes of Chinese leaders, and he continued to lecture them publicly at the very time the National People's Congress, the country's ceremonial legislative body, was convening.
How could Mr. Christopher have believed that continuing a highly public threat to withdraw China's most-favored-nation (MFN) status if its human rights record is not improved would invite anything other than a highly public, ``in your face'' rejection? The US is not without resources permitting it to nudge China's domestic policies. If we are smart enough, we might advance the cause of human freedom a bit. But a public scolding is the last way to influence a country like China.
Christopher's handling of the matter is all the more puzzling because the threat to cancel MFN status is evidently an idle one. Virtually no one in the administration or in Congress really thinks ending MFN for China would help anyone.
Business wants a stable trade climate, absent recurring threats, and is telling the secretary he is bungling badly. But much more than economic interests are at stake. While the Chinese leadership has refused to move as much as two steps toward political democracy, it has moved far in the economic arena in ways that extend pluralism.
The entrepreneurs and business organizations, the fax machines and western contacts that have grown up around burgeoning international trade are helping make China a less completely totalitarian and more open society. The last thing friends of freedom in China should want is MFN's termination - whatever US economic interests may be.
But far more distressing than anything in the Clinton administration's China policy is that policy's evident fit into a pattern of persisting foreign misconceptions. Only once before in the nearly five decades since World War II - the first two years or so of Jimmy Carter's tenure - has an American presidency been so consistently muddle-headed in responding to the world outside.
When President Clinton and his key aides took office, they let it be known that they thought most Americans wanted the administration to concentrate on domestic matters to the diminution of foreign policy, and that they would follow this instruction. But they were wrong on both counts. Most Americans know that their country has large international interests and responsibilities and they want it to pursue them actively. Besides, the world will not let this or any other modern US president attend minimally to foreign affairs.
On Bosnia, the Clinton policy was confused and contradictory from the start. The president repeatedly talked tough and then backed down. For a full year he squandered a resource that is vital to any nation that plays a leadership role internationally: the sense among its friends and foes alike that it will formulate its foreign policies with care and precision, make them known unambiguously, and then follow them with maximum possible consistency.
On Haiti it has been more of the same. Mr. Clinton had denounced the Bush administration for moral obtuseness. Six days before his inauguration, though, he announced that Bush's repatriation procedures for fleeing Haitians would continue during his presidency. After proclaiming the strongest possible support for Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to the presidency, Clinton gradually retreated to grudging support for the Haitian status quo.
With regard to Russia, the Clinton administration has followed, until very recently, a policy so excessively Yeltsin-centric and Russo-centric as to dismay even foreign policy leaders of his own party who are generally sympathetic to his thinking. An example is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. Mr. Leahy has called for a wholesale shift in emphasis, toward structural means of buttressing the independence of key area countries such as Ukraine.
The record of stumbles and bungles extends further to the administration's apparent lack of consistent purpose in Somalia, and its unwise public bashing of Japan and the Hosokawa government over trade. Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey rebuked Clinton on the trade issue, charging last month that he was engaging in ``gratuitous brinkmanship'' that put long-term US interests at risk in the search for domestic political gain.
Against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Gulf war victory, the Clinton administration came to office holding an unprecedented strong hand in foreign affairs. But with rare exceptions, such as their handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Clinton and his team have played their cards in a manner which diminishes American credibility and damages its interests.