In the first months of his first administration, President Clinton promised to focus "like a laser beam" on the domestic economy. And Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff ignited an explosion by telling reporters, on background he thought, that a financially strapped America at the end of the cold war was in a new ball game in which American leadership was going to be "much less than it was before."
Now Mr. Tarnoff will be leaving the State Department at the end of January, symbolizing a Clinton turn toward a more activist role in world affairs. There are other signs of transition. Defense Secretary William Perry says he wanted out because he could not continue the burden of sending soldiers on dangerous missions. Mr. Perry opposed using troops to capture war criminals in Bosnia. Now Samuel Berger, the newly designated national security adviser, promises "better and more effective steps" to ensure the apprehension of such criminals.
In a general sort of way, the transition seems to be part of a pendulum swing between the "no more Munichs" syndrome - no more appeasement of dictators - and the "no more Vietnams" syndrome - no more plunging America into third-world quagmires.
President Clinton was part of the "no more Vietnams" generation, but now "no more Munichs" may be making a comeback with Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright, whose Czech homeland was given away to Hitler in Munich.
NEW YORK TIMES correspondent Elaine Sciolino quotes Ambassador Albright as saying, on a trip to Prague last summer with Hillary Rodham Clinton, "My mind-set is Munich, most of my generation's is Vietnam. I saw what happened when a dictator was allowed to take over a piece of a country and the country went down the tubes. And I saw the opposite during the war when America joined the fight. For me, America is really, truly the indispensable nation." As UN ambassador, Albright has been out ahead of the Clinton administration on Cuba and Haiti, on human rights in China, and intervention in former Yugoslavia. Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the joint chiefs, recalls that he almost had "an aneurysm" during a conference on Bosnia when Albright asked, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
President Clinton must know what he's getting with Albright, and it must fit his desire for a sturdier foreign policy, with little patience for dictators and warlords.
Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.