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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Paralysis at Home, Changes Abroad

November 29, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — One of the assumptions underlying the election deadlock of the last three weeks is that there are no serious consequences for American foreign policy.

This isn't like the Kennedy-Nixon election in 1960, so the thinking goes. Back then, America was in the midst of the Cold War and couldn't afford weeks of uncertainty about its future leadership.

But now, it is argued, the United States faces no big crises overseas--and even if it did, the Clinton administration is still on the job and can handle anything that crops up between now and Jan. 20.

This logic is wrong. It ignores the accumulating evidence that the United States faces long-term challenges in the world--ones that only a new administration can address. Although Clinton may be one of the most active lame-duck presidents in history, his administration can't possibly resolve these problems.

The rest of the world hasn't stopped to see who wins in Florida.

As America's political leadership argues and litigates itself into a state of paralysis, there are important changes underway abroad. In more ordinary times, a president-elect and his Cabinet appointees already would be getting ready to cope with them.

Look at what's been happening around the world in just the last few weeks.

At the top of the list, of course, is the continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinians. That seems to be the only foreign policy story that has attracted enough press coverage for Americans to take notice amid all the Bush-Gore election news.

Other less dramatic but equally important events are being all but ignored. Among them:

* The revival of Saddam Hussein. The decade-long American effort to isolate Hussein seems to be crumbling.

Over the last few weeks, other Arab governments have moved to upgrade their ties with Iraq. In early November, Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb became the highest-ranking Arab leader to visit Baghdad since 1990.

Meanwhile, Iraq has been pursuing new high-level diplomacy with other major powers. Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov visited Baghdad this month, and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing on Tuesday.

Jiang told Hussein's envoy that "the world is developing toward a multipolar society and [that] the world should be a colorful one," reported China's New China News Agency. Jiang needn't worry; with Hussein around, the world will certainly be colorful--and scary.

By Jan. 20, Hussein will be able to claim that, despite the Persian Gulf War, he outlasted two American presidents, George Bush and Clinton, and is regaining the international legitimacy he possessed before his invasion of Kuwait.

* The weakening international economy. Take, for example, South Korea. Until recently, it seemed to be recovering well from the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. Now it seems to be slipping backward again.

South Korea's banks are overwhelmed with bad debts. Some of its leading business conglomerates, or chaebol, are failing. Daewoo Motor Co. went into bankruptcy earlier this month, and President Kim Dae Jung's government has been scrambling to rescue Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co.

This month, the International Monetary Fund warned that if South Korea doesn't do something about these failing "zombie" companies, the country's entire financial system could be in danger.

* The deepening security ties between Russia and China. Two weeks ago, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya I. Klebanov visited Beijing and served notice that his country plans to sell China an early-warning radar system similar to the American AWACS--thus bolstering the capabilities of the Chinese air force.

The Clinton administration had devoted months of time and effort to persuading Israel not to sell China such a system. Now it appears the new Russian sale will nullify these American efforts. And Moscow appears to be ready to go still further in strengthening the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

The Sino-Russian linkup goes beyond arms sales to larger foreign policy disputes. China supports Russia's policy in Chechnya, and Russia seems to endorse China's position on Taiwan.

In Washington, U.S. policymakers, still stuck in the 1970s, keep on insisting that the Russians and Chinese bear such long-standing animosity toward one another that they can't and won't work together. Recent events show otherwise.

There are plenty of other looming potential foreign policy disasters for which a new administration could start preparing. The drug war in Colombia could spill over into neighboring countries. Indonesia could begin to fall apart.

The Clinton administration, of course, is still in charge. The president flew off to Vietnam this month and will travel to Northern Ireland next month--maybe to North Korea too.

But that's deceptive. The president and his top advisors are still on the job, but for the last six months, many of the Clinton administration's working-level personnel have been departing for other jobs.

What we have in Washington now is a caretaker government, one that can't possibly devise long-term policies or strategies. Only a new administration can do that. We need one, and so far we're not getting it.

*

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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