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Clinton's Legacy May Hinge on Next 3 Months

Diplomacy: Administration suddenly is scrambling to handle multiple foreign crises--with solutions elusive.


WASHINGTON — For Bill Clinton and his weary advisors, it's a sobering thought: The president's foreign policy legacy may well be determined more by how he handles multiple crises during his last three months in office than by anything he's accomplished over the previous seven years.

The Clinton administration is scrambling to deal simultaneously with the unraveling of its seven-year push for Mideast peace, an apparent terrorist attack on a Navy destroyer, the troubled transition of power in Yugoslavia, the rapid crumbling of sanctions against Iraq and gyrating foreign oil prices.

About the only good news comes from a most unlikely place--North Korea--but even that is no sure thing, as the president must convert last week's talks with a high-ranking North Korean official into concrete gains that will help end half a century of hostility.

"Solutions aren't easy," said Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington. "The United States can't stop violence on the ground in the Palestinian areas. We can't retaliate against terrorists as long as they remain anonymous. We can't prevent oil prices from rising or the stock market from declining. We can't stop [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein]. And we can't micro-manage the Yugoslav transition."

But as the leader of the world's only superpower, Clinton must find ways to make inroads in each area or face the prospect that he will leave office with the world appearing more troubled than when he assumed the presidency.

His actions over the next month could also help determine who is elected his successor. Until last month, it looked as if progress toward a Mideast peace agreement might be the crown jewel of his legacy. Instead, the peace process has unraveled to a point where many experts predict the best Clinton can hope to do is end the current bloodshed.

"The idea of building some new Camp David process is now unrealistic for Clinton. It'll have to wait for his successor," said Haass, who handled Mideast policy at the White House's National Security Council during the Bush administration.

In addition, Clinton faces the probability that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare independence in November, further alienating the two sides, said Henri Barkey, a Mideast expert and former State Department policy planning staffer.

"And that will make all outstanding issues harder to negotiate," Barkey said. "It'll be very difficult to mend relations in the short time he has left."

The most daunting challenge, however, may be responding to last week's apparent terrorist attack on the U.S. guided missile destroyer Cole, whose hull was pierced by an explosion as it was preparing to refuel at the Yemeni port of Aden on the Arabian Peninsula.

In the Mideast peace process, at least the players are known. In the immediate aftermath of the Cole blast, however, Clinton has little concrete information on which to operate. FBI investigators, forensic evidence or intelligence breakthroughs could ultimately provide grounds for prosecution or retaliation. But until they do, Clinton has virtually no options for taking action, terrorism experts say.

Even if the responsible parties are conclusively identified, the president will face the difficulty of fashioning an effective response, as he has promised to do.

Since the presumed suicide bombers did not survive the explosion, the United States would no doubt attempt to indict their leaders or sponsors. But tracking and arresting them could prove extremely difficult. The United States still has not been able to nab the perpetrators of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 American military personnel. At the time, President Reagan promised retaliation, a pledge the U.S. has never been able to fulfill.

Some alleged perpetrators of past terrorist acts are beyond reach, such as Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden has taken refuge in Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government has refused to turn him over to U.S. authorities.

Even military reprisals have their limits.

"Retaliation is mostly a tactical tool," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director of the Washington office of think tank Rand Corp. "It doesn't fulfill any strategic objective. It makes us feel better. It sends a message that no one can attack without impunity. And it may force them to change plans. But does it stop terrorism? No. And does it diminish attacks or hatred of the U.S.? No. In fact, in some cases it only makes another attack more likely."

Some terrorism experts say the Clinton administration would produce more tangible results by not striking back, because a military reprisal often plays into terrorists' long-term strategy.

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