Hail To The Chief And Pass The Hand Grenades

Just after his election, Bill Clinton promised a laser-beam focus on revving up U. S. economic growth. Instead, the new President may find himself worrying about the kind of lasers that guide "smart" bombs to their targets. On Jan. 13, President-to-be Clinton was forcefully reminded of the festering international problems that await him when 112 U. S. and allied aircraft launched a raid on missile sites in southern Iraq's "no-fly" zone. Elsewhere, as Clinton packed his inaugural tuxedo, U. S. Marines suffered their first fatality while feeding the starving in Somalia, and the Air Force girded for possible action in the skies over Bosnia.

None of these regional flashpoints approaches the awesome threat of the nuclear-superpower standoff that has greeted every President since Eisenhower. But the sheer diversity of the simultaneous foreign policy challenges confronting Clinton is daunting. "It's hard to think of a similar period when a new President had so many different crises on his hands," says Alton Frye, Washington vice-president at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ONSLAUGHT. As the first post-cold-war President, Clinton wants to establish a new global role for the U. S. But he would like to ease into foreign policy. Above all, he would rather wait until his ambitious "100 Days" domestic plan had been enacted. But he is probably going to be robbed of that luxury. He is going to have to plunge right into making decisions on the use of U. S. power abroad. And it doesn't help that Clinton has so far named only a handful of players to his foreign policy team.

The foreign policy onslaught could conflict with Clinton's economic agenda. Not only will it divert his attention from domestic concerns, but a clash may loom on Capitol Hill over when and how to intervene abroad. Foreign crises "will force him to spend political capital on foreign problems that he wants to spend on domestic issues," says historian Michael R. Beschloss.

That's not to say that Clinton has been dealt a terrible hand. By ordering the strike against Iraq, George Bush may actually have done his successor a favor. "After getting whacked, Saddam Hussein will lie low for awhile," predicts Peter W. Rodman of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Iraqi representatives at the U. N. quickly promised to stop raiding territory ceded to Kuwait. They also backed away from their insistence that U. N. inspectors use only Iraqi planes. But any respite from the war of nerves will likely be temporary as Saddam moves to test the new President.

Operation Restore Hope in Somalia remains a relatively low-risk venture. The challenge for Clinton will be to find a way to turn the humanitarian mission over to the U. N. and to extricate 22,000 U. S. troops without allowing armed thugs to resume terrorizing the country.

Bosnia is the toughest case. An internationally brokered 10-point peace plan has been tentatively endorsed by Bosnian Serb, Croat, and Muslim leaders. But the plan, like so many cease-fires before, may yet founder. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic insists on seeking approval for the settlement from the Assembly of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The legislature is packed with extreme nationalists who will resist the pact.

BALKAN PUSH? Clinton has signaled that he's more likely than Bush to become militarily involved in the Balkans. He is likely to lean hard on European allies to enforce the ban on Serbian flights over Bosnia, possibly with allied air strikes. He also is mulling easing the arms embargo so that the West can supply arms to outgunned Bosnian Muslims. "Serb forces are spread thin on the ground," says one Clinton adviser. "If Bosnian Muslims are reasonably well-armed, they'll fight the Serbs to a standstill." European allies may be spurred to act if the peace plan collapses, but they'll need prodding. Bush excelled at this sort of up-close-and-personal diplomacy. Clinton's skills are untested.

Elsewhere, a new Clinton push is probably required to get the stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks moving, too. Progress is needed to offset ominous trends in the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists are making enormous strides in depression-wracked Arab societies. And Iran is making a comeback.

Presidents usually revel in foreign policy crises, which give the occupant in the White House a chance to act decisively on the world stage. But Clinton may be hit with too much, too soon. No one doubts that Clinton is a quick study, but these foreign tinderboxes may put his learning ability to the supreme test.

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