Clinton's Yes No Maybe Yes Foreign Policy

The month of mixed signals, breast-beating, and false starts notwithstanding, it's hard to argue with President Clinton's goals in Haiti. He wanted the removal of its dictators, restoration of the democratically elected President, a halt in the refugee flow, and an end to atrocities. And despite a bipartisan pummeling over the lurching nature of his policy, he may even get what he wants.

The problem is that months of alternating bouts of bluster and retreat won't be forgotten in the afterglow of an invasion averted and despots deposed. It's only too obvious that Clinton has yet to learn that in foreign policy, there are few clear right and wrong decisions. Decisiveness and consistency are what count. So is thinking through all the repercussions of a decision.

Although the last-minute settlement that arranged the Oct. 15 resignation of General Raoul Cedras and his conspirators may win Clinton a reprieve from dropping public approval polls, the Administration's months of public hand-wringing over Haiti and other foreign policy hot spots has a price. That it took the actual takeoff of troop planes to convince Cedras & Co. that the U.S. meant business is evidence of how much Clinton has squandered his stature abroad. "We had to order the invasion to make [our threats] credible," concedes Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

CUT THE BLUSTER. Haiti is just the latest in a string of foreign policy challenges in which the Administration's flailing policy process overshadowed the eventual decision. After much flipping and flopping, the President managed to stanch the flow of Cuban refugees. But he should have heeded early warnings of an exodus and initiated a dialogue. Then there's Bosnia. Clinton prudently concluded that U.S. intervention would fail, but only after months of threats and backtracking. In Somalia, Clinton was right to pull out when 18 American troops were killed in an ambush, but he should never have shifted the mission to nation-building in the first place. And China policy is no less messy. Clinton boasted about linking human rights to trade during the campaign and after, therefore inviting harsh criticism when he renewed Beijing's most-favored-nation status.

The Administration is relieved it won't need to pursue an unpopular war in Haiti. But while Clinton and his advisers crow that his resolve in the Caribbean proves he's ready for prime time, it's not clear he has established any great principles. By giving the despots he described as "murderers" and "rapists" a one-month grace period and amnesty, Clinton has chipped away at one moral cornerstone.

The questionable deal was the ultimate flip-flop. It raises questions about just how committed Clinton was. Even worse, Clinton seemed not to have examined the consequences of his deal with Haiti's generals. The President and his aides were clearly unprepared for the sight of Haitian troops killing citizens while American soldiers stood by. To be sure, it may be too much to ask Clinton and his foreign policy team to come up with an overarching vision that sets guidelines for when to intervene militarily and when to stay out. But there should be some consistency of principle from issue to issue.

At the very least, the Clintonites need to quit the ad hoc policymaking and handle each new crisis more methodically. Set a realistic goal, stick to the plan, and pursue it with quiet diplomacy. Bluster and bluff don't work, whether it's trade threats against Japan, human-rights demands to China, or nuclear confrontation with North Korea--unless Clinton follows through with action. Haiti is a clear case of Clinton beating his drums so loudly that he left himself no way out of an invasion, a policy many senior advisers privately feared was a folly.

The arena where Clinton needs to do a lot more talking is at home. A successful chief executive must first lay the groundwork for public support for controversial actions. The national dialogue that Clinton promised to hold on Haiti never happened because he worried that invasion talk would cause an uproar.

So far, Clinton has been lucky. Despite its chaotic nature, his foreign policy decision-making process hasn't produced any big disasters. Haiti may yet turn out well, too. If nothing else, Haiti has taught the President the importance of backing threats with action. In foreign policy, a President's credibility can have the firepower of the Pentagon. Maybe more.

Washington Correspondent Garland covers the President.

Commentary/by Susan B. Garland

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