Clinton mission spells trouble: Patrick Cockburn in Washington reports on a trip that may bring little reward

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The Independent Online
'THE lesson of 1993 is that we always get in trouble in countries with A and I in them: Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Russia,' said a State Department official.

As President Bill Clinton prepares to depart for Russia on 12 January, the same problems seem likely to pursue him into 1994. The danger in Moscow - as earlier in Sarajevo, Mogadishu and Port-au-Prince - is that his ability to get what he wants will be tested in a situation over which he has limited influence.

The same was true in all four countries where Mr Clinton's foreign policy suffered setbacks during his first year in office. In each case he announced policy goals which could not be achieved with the limited military and financial resources he was prepared to deploy.

In Somalia, the US commanders - although nominally under UN control - tried to determine who ran the country largely by relying on a single Ranger battalion backed by gunships and helicopters. Commentators in Washington have focused on the technical reasons for the defeat of their troops on 3 October, but American political aims - eliminating the warlords - always exceeded the military means available.

The same pattern is visible in Bosnia and Haiti, and in Russia where, despite Mr Clinton's vocal support for Boris Yeltsin, US financial aid has been very limited.

It is not wholly fair to blame Mr Clinton for not doing more. Nothing is clearer than the lack of appetite among the American public for involvement abroad.

Where Mr Clinton is culpable is that he has always oversold his foreign policy. This leaves him exposed when it goes wrong. One reason his Russian policy looks in disarray - after the ultra-nationalist and Communist successes in the parliamenary election - is that the White House promoted it as successful in order to distract media attention from Haiti and Somalia.

In his first months in office Mr Clinton was also misled by a legacy of the Gulf war: the use of high-technology weaponry to hurt the other side but without the risk of American casualties. The accuracy of Tomahawk ground-to-ground missiles during the war was overstated, but Mr Clinton was encouraged to launch them against Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad and then to try to kill Mohammed Farah Aideed, the Somali warlord, from the air. In both cases the air strikes made good television but were militarily ineffective.

Mr Clinton's foreign policy team defend themselves by saying they are being blamed for problems inherited from Mr Bush. It was he, after all, who first got involved in Somalia. But although Mr Clinton inherited simmering crises in Bosnia and Haiti, he got the credit for the Israel-PLO agreement, the fruit of Mr Bush's labours, which was signed in Washington in September.

The Democrats would be on surer ground if they complained - as they dare not do - that their problems in shaping an effective foreign policy had been compounded because the Pentagon and the CIA are essentially Republican institutions. The armed forces owed their ever-expanding budgets in the 1980s to President Reagan. The CIA and the Democrats have always viewed each other with suspicion.

From the row over the ending of the ban on gays in the military in January to the forced resignation of Les Aspin as Defense Secretary in December, Mr Clinton and the military have been in covert confrontation.

Mr Clinton - conscious that he is politically vulnerable because he has not served in the military - tried to conciliate them by replacing Mr Aspin with Bobby Ray Inman, a senior member of the national security establishment.

This may help, but on the day after Christmas, a CIA report was leaked saying there was a better than even chance that North Korea had one or two nuclear bombs. This cut across the White House policy of negotiating with the North Koreans. Friction between Mr Clinton and the CIA is not continual, but the State Department official might consider it further evidence that letters A and I have a fatal significance for the President.