ON the eve of a summit with President Boris Yeltsin and after his first independent military operation in Haiti, President Clinton took the day off from health care to address the United Nations. He faces many disagreements in his inner circle over a vision for US foreign policy and for America's role in the world. These were exacerbated by the White House action in Haiti that required a former American president to intervene and make a deal. Still, Mr. Clinton used Haiti - a combination of velvet glove and iron fist - to suggest that his administration has not opted out of a leadership role in the post-cold-war world.
Given this adminstration's track record in foreign policy, however, it is certain that other nations will adopt a ``wait and see'' policy. Mr. Yeltsin staked out clearly in his speech that most of the former territory of the Soviet Union, the so-called near abroad, was best handled by Moscow. Whether the United States will argue strongly for democratic principles there, or defer to Moscow in the interests of stability, was not articulated by the president. How far Moscow's influence is allowed to extend into Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is an immediate issue. Clinton and Yeltsin are to talk about them over the table today. Clues to the desire of nations such as Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and in the Caucasus for self-determination however, are being sent to the White House: No emigre representatives of these states have accepted invitations to the White House lawn reception for Yeltsin.
In simple terms, Clinton's Monday message was, the US is ready to take sharp action, if it can gain the agreement of the principal international players involved. This might be called ``strong multilateralism.'' In Haiti, Clinton stated, the US proved it will ``lead a multinational force when our interests are plain.'' He then drew at least a rhetorical line in the sand on one hot area of international dispute - Sarajevo. With the city being strangled again by the Serbs, with the NATO exclusion zones around the safe areas being openly violated, and with no evident response from the British general of UN forces who is charged with protecting the city, Clinton asked for ``new resolve.''
We will see. It is unclear whether the president actually believes strong leadership can be exercised by international consensus. He may call Haiti a ``multilateral action.'' But all the decisions were made in Washington; and it was US marines who got in a fire- fight Sunday night.
Democratic principles still require strong US leadership.