The US foreign policy mess

How bad is it? Let me count the ways.

THERE is growing consensus in the nongovernmental foreign affairs community that never has United States foreign policy been in such disarray. Kosovo has brought this into focus.

President Clinton's foreign policy team doesn't know how to get out of the mess they thoughtlessly got into. Neither does Congress. Nor is there anything close to agreement among concerned members of the public. The root cause of this problem is the lack of clear objectives and priorities and, most important, the effort to conduct foreign policy on the cheap. There's an unwillingness to pay for lofty goals and a reluctance to accept the casualties that accompany military action.

This has imposed constraints on bombing and so far ruled out combat on the ground where all previous wars have been decided. As a Washington think-tank denizen put it in a recent conference, "You could make Bismarck secretary of state and put Genghis Khan in the Pentagon and it wouldn't make any difference with these limitations." The bombing has provoked what it was intended to prevent.

It is also aggravating other problems in our international relations, notably with Russia and China. In the case of Russia, the NATO war against Serbia has squandered 10 years of halting but growing cooperation, increased Russian suspicion of NATO, and confirmed Russia's worst fears about NATO expansion.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's approach to Kosovo is influenced by the consequences that flowed from the appeasement of Hitler in the Munich agreement. What brought Hitler to power in the first place was the near-disintegration of Germany in the early 1930s. Russia today has what Germany did not have then - thousands of nuclear weapons under shaky command and control. This is scary. One of our highest priorities ought to be arms-control negotiations - which can't prosper in this atmosphere.

Kosovo has also set back relations with China. Since President Nixon's visit in 1972, patient, laborious diplomacy on both sides was gradually reducing mutual distrust. That distrust has now been revived in both countries. Many Chinese think the NATO bombing of their embassy in Belgrade was no accident. Many Americans' suspicions of China are confirmed by Chinese espionage and political contributions to the Democrats.

From the anti-Chinese outcry that has been aroused, one would think that Americans have never spied on anybody or tried to influence another country's elections. Congress is right to be upset, but its anger ought to be directed at the counterintelligence services that failed to prevent the espionage and at those who accepted contributions.

Some in Congress and the public seek to use these irritants to take US-China relations back to the worst days of the cold war. The tactic is to link unrelated things. The anti-Chinese crowd is angry that the Chinese are clever enough to steal our secrets and brutal enough to clap dissidents in jail; so they oppose Chinese admission to the World Trade Organization. It doesn't matter to them that the US is better off with China in the WTO than out of it; the WTO will give the US a forum to pursue trade disputes with China.

If Kosovo had never happened, Russia would still be threatened with disintegration, and China would still be hard to deal with. Kosovo simply makes these things less amenable to settlement.

NATO unity is crumbling. US policy is adrift in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Congress will neither support the war nor use its powers to stop it. Instead, Congress makes what passes for defense policy by appropriating more money than even the Pentagon wants and for weapons such as the antiballistic missile that won't work.

The indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal complicates matters. They are complicated even further by Ms. Albright, who said on CNN the other day that there is nothing to negotiate. Mr. Milosevic, she said, must accept NATO's terms, or else. This is equivalent to unconditional surrender - total defeat for Milosevic, total victory for NATO. It guarantees a long war; yet the longer the war continues, the worse its effects. It is now more urgent to end the war than win it. This isn't easy. We should settle Kosovo with the best deal we can get. Then we can go about the long and difficult task of rebuilding our international relations.

*Pat M. Holt, a Washington foreign affairs writer, is author of 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995).

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