WASHINGTON — Two years ago, at the beginning of his sometimes star-crossed Administration, President Clinton couldn't seem to get anything right in foreign policy: American troops were mired in Somalia, American power was stymied in tiny Haiti and American diplomacy was spinning wheels in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But this week, Clinton can celebrate an unusual double success: the opening of U.S.-orchestrated peace talks on Bosnia and a U.S.-mediated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the West Bank.
"I'm very encouraged," Clinton told reporters Monday. "I think both these things are examples of the imperative for United States leadership."
The question that Administration critics and foreign policy analysts must solve now is: What went right?
The answer seems to be: one part helpful circumstance, one part hard-won diplomatic skill.
"There has been a definite improvement in performance," said Patrick Glynn of the American Enterprise Institute, long a critic of the Administration. "There has been some on-the-job learning. It should have happened earlier . . . [but] better late than never."
Glynn and other foreign policy experts said the improvement is apparent on two counts in the Administration's peacemaking in Bosnia.
First, Clinton and his aides are exercising U.S. diplomatic leadership more assertively. In 1993, when European countries objected to a Clinton proposal to arm the Bosnian government and launch airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs, the new President quickly backed down. But this year, when Clinton decided to use airstrikes to push the Serbs into peace talks, he told the Europeans that he intended to go ahead whether they objected or not, senior officials say.
Second, the President seems more comfortable using threats of military power to back up his diplomatic ideas. Some aides say he learned a lesson from his 1994 experience in Haiti, where a stubborn military junta quickly agreed to step down once Clinton ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to land on the island.
"In the first year, the incompetence and hesitation and mix-ups obscured the fact that the United States is still the most powerful country in the world," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former top State Department official. "They're beginning to realize that you can do something with that, if you use the right tools. They just didn't catch on to that until this year."
Still, Sonnenfeldt noted, the outcome in Bosnia is far from being decided--and the Administration's handful of successes do not yet add up to a brilliant record overall.
"It's hard to know whether this is a new pattern, or just a unique combination of circumstances and individuals," he said.
"There's a lot of luck, good or bad, in all these situations," agreed John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution. "A lot of this is out of anyone's control.
"The Middle East peace process is a fairly natural result of a long process that started in previous Administrations," he added. "The Clinton Administration deserves credit for keeping it going, but it's continuity at work."
On other fronts, the Administration's performance is still uneven, the analysts say.
Relations with Russia and China, the two great powers that are most likely to pose problems for the United States, are rocky. Russia's parliament is angry about the U.S. airstrikes against the Serbs, traditional allies of Moscow; Russian leaders worry that any expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be aimed against them.
With China, the Administration has experienced three years of touchy relations culminating in a diplomatic crisis this year after the United States allowed Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-Hui, to enter the country on an unofficial visit.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Clinton and his aides can count clear successes in the conclusion of two major trade agreements, the launching of peace talks in Northern Ireland, and the continued containment of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq; and at least partial success in halting North Korea's nuclear weapons-building program.
If it is hard to find a pattern here, that may be because Clinton has proclaimed no grand strategy beyond seeking freer trade and supporting democracy in the former Soviet Union.
"He does the minimum that's necessary to keep foreign policy from destroying his presidency," Glynn complained.
"Their relative success in Bosnia is a bit characteristic in that it came only when their back was against the wall," he said. "Their diplomacy has always had a path-of-least-resistance quality. This is still the path of least resistance, because all the alternatives are worse."
The public is increasingly pleased by what it sees. A Times Poll released last week found that 50% of those polled approved of Clinton's foreign policy performance, against 40% who disapproved. That was the President's highest foreign policy approval rating in more than a year.
But there is little jubilation in the White House, for there is still much that can go wrong on every front. The peace talks in Bosnia have opened a major debate over Clinton's promise to deploy as many as 25,000 U.S. ground troops as peacekeepers if an agreement is reached.
"If that fails, the whole thing collapses, because this won't go without Americans on the ground," Sonnenfeldt warned.
In the Middle East, both Israelis and Palestinians want the United States to underwrite their halting peace process with money. And Republican presidential candidates are giving the President no quarter, attacking his policies on Bosnia, Russia and China.
Clinton hopes to turn foreign policy into a plus for his reelection campaign, and is even making a campaign-style trip to Ireland this November to celebrate success in peace talks there. But White House advisers predict that the sailing will be far from smooth, and that the best they can expect is to neutralize the Republicans' attacks.