Bill Clinton's World Of Trouble

The Foreign Policy President? Not Bill Clinton. He came into office determined to tackle America's domestic problems. Even after Republicans won control of the Congress in 1994, foreign policy remained largely a sideshow to high-stakes political battles over fiscal and social policy being waged from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, suddenly, with disputes flaring up in Asia and Europe, the world stage is looking treacherous for Clinton. The question: Can the President maneuver deftly enough to defuse the spiraling crises?

It has been open season on Clinton's handling of world affairs ever since his controversial Moscow summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in early May. Clinton made a rookie error: He raised expectations for the meeting, then came home empty-handed. Such muffed maneuvers have become standard, critics carp. After three years in office, the Clinton team still operates ad hoc, often failing to win international backing for its initiatives. "We're always too ramshackle, we've never been smooth," admits Raymond G.H. Seitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Britain.

TAIWAN FLIP-FLOP. That's glaringly obvious as troubles break out around the globe. China, incensed at Clinton's last-minute decision in May to allow Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the U.S., has abruptly halted all high-level military exchanges with the U.S. Many China watchers fear Beijing will retaliate further by reneging on pledges to curb missile sales. Clinton's flip-flop, coming after months of insisting Lee wasn't welcome in the U.S., possibly could even cost U.S. companies some juicy contracts in the booming markets of the Middle Kingdom. "We're waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Thomas D. Gorman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and president of CCI Asia-Pacific, a Hong Kong-based publisher.

The economic stakes are even higher in America's acrimonious dispute with Japan over autos and auto parts. A full-blown trade war could erupt on June 28, when sky-high U.S. tariffs on imported Japanese luxury cars are set to go into effect. Trade hands are counting on the usual eleventh-hour compromise to avert disaster, and there are rumors of renewed talks. Still, neither side seems willing to blink.

As if that weren't enough, televised images of French and British soldiers chained to Serbian military installations in Bosnia illuminate the lack of credible U.S. leadership. Washington has been in the awkward position of urging air strikes on Serb strongholds without being willing to put U.S. troops at risk. But in a May 31 speech, Clinton for the first time said he would consider dispatching ground forces to Bosnia to help redeploy or rescue U.N. peacekeepers.

GET-TOUGH TACTICS. For Clinton, all this amounts to a sudden comedown. Until Bosnia, his Administration seemed to be finding its foreign policy footing after a series of blunders early on. Last fall, U.S. troops restored Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power without firing a shot. U.S. trade negotiators blunted China's bid for easy entry into the new World Trade Organization and signed an accord with Beijing that strengthens Chinese protection of American intellectual property rights. And the President's get-tough tactics with Japan are playing to mostly favorable reviews in U.S. business circles--and could yet prove a shrewd gamble. Indeed, top U.S. and Japanese officials say talks may resume in mid-June.

But even on Japan, a combination of factors still could trip Clinton up. These days, economic muscle often counts for more than military might. Yet Uncle Sam is broke. That has emboldened Japanese officials to dig in their heels against U.S. demands that Tokyo open up its auto market. Years of writing fat foreign aid checks to its neighbors assures Japan of strong Asian backing for its stance. And having failed to muster European support in advance, Washington finds itself on the losing side of the global public-relations battle.

On Capitol Hill, wholesale micromanagement of foreign policy isn't making the President's job any easier. Take the furor over Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers threatened to rewrite immigration laws to let Lee into the country unless Clinton granted him a visa. The President reluctantly acquiesced--blaming Congress for making him do it.

Similarly, draconian legislation championed by Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) drove the Clintonites to impose a broad trade ban on Iran, to the consternation of the Europeans and Japanese. And many GOP critics of Clinton's Bosnia policy are calling for congressional restraints on further U.S. action, even though they once howled for punitive air strikes on Serb strongholds.

Many in Congress want to go much further in crimping Clinton's ability to act decisively overseas. Pending foreign affairs bills in the House and Senate include provisions that slash foreign aid, direct the President to appoint an envoy to Tibet, and deny visas to foreigners who do business with Cuba. "It's a broad-brush assault on the President's conduct of foreign policy and his foreign policy agenda," says Arnold Kanter, senior associate at the Forum for International Policy in Washington and a top State Dept. official in the Bush Administration.

The Clintonites wouldn't be in such hot water if they had more of a gift for mapping strategy. Case in point: Taiwan. The groundswell of domestic political support for Lee's visit should have been obvious to Administration policymakers months earlier. But U.S. officials failed to prepare the Chinese and did not wring concessions from Taiwan or Congress for their policy flip-flop.

Too often, Clinton launches foreign policies without thinking them through or shoring up international support. For instance, hostage-taking by the Serbs was a predictable consequence of the NATO air attacks in Bosnia. Yet as the leading proponent of using airpower, the Administration didn't have a fallback plan. "Clinton has caused problems for himself and the U.S. by failing to have a consistent plan of action that thinks two or three steps ahead," says former State Dept. policymaker Robert B. Zoellick.

Clinton will get a chance to redeem himself at a summit of the leaders of the seven major industrial countries that starts June 15 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Bosnia seems sure to be on the agenda. And the President will have a chance to press Japan yet again on its auto market. Getting bogged down in such issues is the last thing Clinton needs as he girds for budget and welfare-reform battles with Congress. But he knows he must do a better job in dealing with them. The global stakes are too high for him to remain just the Domestic Policy President.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Where Sparks Are Flying

CHINA A yearlong U.S. bid to nurture economic and security ties with

Beijing could be derailed by Chinese ire over Clinton's sudden decision to let Taiwan's President visit the U.S.

JAPAN Washington is poised to launch a trade war with Tokyo on June

28 if both sides fail to resolve a dispute over autos and auto parts. Negotiations may restart in mid-June.

IRAN Europe and Japan have rebuffed Clinton's call for a broad

embargo on Tehran.

BOSNIA The American-led policy of using NATO air strikes to halt Serb

advances collapsed as Serbs took U.N. peacekeepers hostage, straining U.S.-European relations.

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