Clinton's Split Personality On Foreign Policy

Consider two recent images of Bill Clinton. In July, there was the confident leader dominating the Tokyo economic summit by mustering aid for Russia and pushing for trade liberalization. But by October, the President is beleaguered--on the defensive over Somalia and mixing up military terminology in announcing a blockade of Haiti.

How could Clinton's handling of foreign policy go from finesse to fumbles in such a short time? The answer may lie in the mantra of the Clinton campaign: "It's the economy, stupid."

PROBLEM PALS. The President is at his best when there is a domestic economic dimension to an international problem and at his worst when confronted with a military crisis. But if Clinton doesn't get up to speed pronto on crisis-handling, his Presidency and his plans to promote economic security will be jeopardized. Already, Congress is threatening to clip his foreign policy wings. One wonders just how long it will take for troublemakers from North Korea to Iran to conclude he is a pushover and flex their muscles.

Clinton has shown that he can perform well on foreign issues when they interest him. Witness his aggressive push for economic aid to Russia, a get-tough trade posture toward Japan and Europe, his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement despite strong opposition within the Democratic Party, and his move to strengthen economic ties with Asia by attending the 15-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Seattle on Nov. 19-20. He is also scrambling, albeit belatedly, to ease strains with China, Asia's emerging economic titan.

But when grappling with the post-cold-war world's hot spots, Clinton has appeared inattentive, inconsistent, and amateurish. The Administration paid little attention to the festering situation in Somalia until the Oct. 3 killing of 18 American servicemen forced the President to scramble for a way out. Further chagrin came on Oct. 8, when a mob in Port-au-Prince blocked a U.S. Navy ship from unloading troops to aid Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power.

Clinton courted these troubles with his choice of top foreign policy players. Les Aspin was chosen to head the Pentagon not because of his military expertise but because of the management skills he could bring to trimming the military budget. In picking Warren M. Christopher, a cautious corporate lawyer with no sense of global strategy, to head State, Clinton signaled his intention to put foreign policy on a back burner. Indeed, all of the President's close associates who joined the Administration hold domestic posts except for Strobe Talbott, a former Oxford University roommate who is now Clinton's chief adviser on Russia. It's no coincidence Russia is the foreign policy area that has interested Clinton most.

FOOT IN THE DOOR. Of course Clinton's efforts to help Russia and his push for global trade agreements are of far greater importance to American interests than whether he halts the turmoil and bloodshed in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti. But his miscues in the hot spots are inviting Congress to grab a much bigger role in foreign policy than it had under his Republican predecessors. His latest woes are also reinforcing an initial view among leaders in Europe and Asia that the U.S. is being led by a novice with a weak team.

But the gravest risk to Clinton is that dangerous foes such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq will be tempted to challenge him. "I'm afraid Clinton will face a violent conflict," warns Reizo Utagawa at Tokyo's International Institute for Global Peace. If international bullies think they have free rein, the President could wind up spending his term dealing with them rather than the economic issues that he really cares about.