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THE NATION : DIPLOMACY : Clinton: Good on Policy, Inept on Management

February 12, 1995|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III served as secretary of state from 1989-1992

WASHINGTON — Two years into office, the Clinton Administration's conduct of foreign policy remains a sometimes frustrating mix of strengths and weaknesses. Its response to the Mexican financial crisis goes a long way toward explaining why.

The Administration's substantive approach to the crisis, grounded in an understanding of the U.S. national interest in Mexico's economic stability, has been sound. But as is so often the case when the Administration is right on substance, its management of the Mexican crisis has been less than adept.

First, fearing adverse domestic political reaction, the President was slow to react to Mexico's financial crisis and put forward a rescue package. Second, it would have been far better had he chosen to get out front and lead by announcing his intent to use part of the Treasury Department's Exchange Stabilization Fund. Then, having put the Administration's money where its mouth was, Clinton could have sought congressional support for a broader rescue package with some possibility of convincing Congress of the important national interests at stake.

This disconnect between substance and management of foreign policy explains much of the Administration's uneven performance. True, there have been foreign-policy successes, notably in international trade and investment. But there are other areas--Somalia, North Korea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Bosnia, China, Japan and, now, sadly, Russia--where performance has been far more ambiguous.

The Clinton Administration correctly asserts that it inherited some of its foreign policy "problems." But so have all Administrations since John Adams took over from George Washington. And this Administration, like all others before it, has also inherited policy "solutions" from its predecessor--above all, the successful end of the Cold War. Unlike every Administration since Harry S. Truman's, the Clinton Administration does not face the risk that any minor crisis might escalate into U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Looking back over the last two years, patterns emerge that help explain the successes and failures of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy.

For example, the Administration tends initially to flounder when faced with an unexpected crisis--such as the Mexican peso's collapse or Moscow's military move against Chechnya. In contrast, it has scored successes when its approach was grounded in continuing policies.

This has perhaps been clearest in the case of the Middle East peace process. Here, the Clinton Administration has energetically--and successfully--pursued the process begun at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

On the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, as well, the Clinton Administration merits high marks for follow-through, despite early hesitation. Similarly with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum--here the continued progress toward lower trade and investment barriers represents the logical next steps of the institution-building begun under the Bush Administration.

The Administration has also done well when its policies are framed in terms of the domestic economy. Issues of economic growth and employment clearly engage the President and most of his top advisers. That's why the Administration's substantive instincts on the Mexican financial crisis have been right on the mark.

NAFTA and GATT represent similar examples. The Administration's support for both was at first lukewarm. However, when the overwhelming economic arguments for each became clear, the Administration moved into action, making common cause with Republicans. The Administration's about-face on most-favored-nation status for China also reflects the Administration's ability, however belated at times, to see economic bottom lines. After bringing U.S.-Chinese relations to the brink over human rights, the Administration finally recognized the domestic economic costs of its policies and reversed them. The path to this decision was tortuous and publicly embarrassing, but the result was right.

In contrast, the Administration has been less successful when it allows special interests to shape policy. Its approach toward Macedonia, driven by domestic political considerations, can only be described as schizophrenic: The United States has 500 peacekeepers on the ground to ensure the territorial integrity of a nation we have recognized but refuse to send an ambassador for fear of offending the Greek-American lobby. The Administration effectively surrendered the conduct of its Haiti policy to the Congressional Black Caucus, embarking on a high-cost, high-risk policy of military intervention and extended occupation.

But even more than concern for political considerations, an uneasiness with U.S. power and an unwillingness to use it have resulted in foreign-policy failures.

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