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INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Clinton Struggling to Shape Foreign Policy and America's Place in World

October 02, 1995|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — President Clinton had good reason last week to call attention to his foreign policy successes. For a change, everything seemed to be going right, and Clinton deserves his share of the credit.

Unfortunately, in the midst of it all, the President tried to seize the opportunity to portray himself as some sort of visionary, a man with far-reaching ideas about the world and America's role in it. It didn't work.

Last Wednesday, the White House summoned a few columnists to interview Clinton about foreign policy. The timing was not accidental. Only the day before, the United States had worked out the beginnings of a peace settlement in Bosnia--an accomplishment that was the direct result of the Clinton Administration's decision last summer to seize the diplomatic initiative there.

The day after the interview, Arab and Israeli leaders were to fly to the White House for the signing of an agreement that extends Palestinian rule to the West Bank, marking the next stage of the Middle East peace process. That's an achievement too. The Administration may be exaggerating its role in bringing about this settlement, but the United States does, after all, play the role of sponsor, instigator, intermediary and host.

For Clinton, the juxtaposition of these two events provided a chance to show that his foreign policy management is not as inept as the Republicans regularly charge, and an occasion to demonstrate that, after early flip-flops on Bosnia, Haiti and China and the debacle in Somalia, his record is improving.

Over the next year, the country is probably going to see a lot more Rose Garden-style foreign policy. With the Republicans dominating Capitol Hill and crippling Clinton's domestic initiatives, foreign policy is the one area where the President still has broad authority to act on his own.

Moreover, while other presidential candidates--Republican, independent or Perotist--are dueling with one another, Clinton can seem to be above the fray by keeping his attention on foreign policy.

Sitting in the Oval Office last week, the President was relatively sober and modest in his appraisal of the recent successes. Calling the Bosnian settlement "an important step," he acknowledged that a lot can still go wrong. He said the same about the Middle East agreement.

It was when he moved beyond the week's events that Clinton became airy and grandiose--sounding a bit like Jerry Brown might have if he had become President.

"The more I stay here and the more time I spend on foreign policy and the more I learn over and over again what is possible and frustrating about it, and the essential role of American leadership, the more I become convinced that there is no longer a clear distinction between what is foreign and domestic," Clinton enthused.

" . . . The longer I stay here, the more convinced I become that all my successors in the 21st Century will have to find different words for domestic and foreign. They'll probably talk about security and economic policy. And 10 years from now, the patterns of speech will be entirely different. People will be discussing things that happened within our borders and beyond our borders in general categories, rather than foreign and domestic, because they are tending to flow together in the global economy."

A few minutes later, looking still further into his crystal ball, the President mused that a generation from now, "at least there's a chance that the world will not involve the potential of these great-nation conflicts. All the great nations will be holding their heads, figuring out what to do in a world where everybody can move around with relative freedom, and there's all this integration, and you can move money around and all that, and so organized groups basically have the capacity to reap destruction everywhere. And we need to think about what we're doing that will minimize that tomorrow, or maximize that tomorrow, in addition to the great-nation conflicts that we can foresee over the next decade or so. "

These rambling ruminations seemed intended to make Clinton sound properly futuristic. The question is whether they are true.

Chances are excellent that we will still be talking about domestic and foreign policy in the 21st Century. It may sound appealing to talk about a world without borders, but with the end of the Cold War, the role of the great nations of the world seems to become ever more important, not less so.

Actually, Clinton's sudden flight into futurism provides insight into some of his own strengths and weaknesses in foreign policy.

He is good at forging links between foreign affairs and the domestic economy. During the George Bush Administration, the foreign policy team often complained privately that domestic policy was a mess, as though the two sides of the Bush White House were disconnected and in competition with one another. Under Clinton, such conflicts are minimized.

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