Clinton returns to the big wide world

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The Independent Online
After weeks in which US foreign policy has appeared paralysed, there are finally signs that the logjam is starting to break. As if preparing to give the starting signal, Mr Clinton late on Wednesday entertained 30 senior congressmen, Democrats and Republicans, to a foreign policy "retreat" at which dinner was the only diversion from an agenda running the gamut of US concerns.

Awaiting decision are such weighty and urgent issues as how to proceed on relations with China and Cuba, squaring Russia on the expansion of Nato, "selling" the international chemical weapons treaty to a sceptical Congress, and payment or not of the backlog of contributions owed to the United Nations.

The foundering of the Middle East peace process and Mr Clinton's failure to work his charms on Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington recently, seemed only to underline a broader problem: a virtual absence of US authority on the international scene since the beginning of the year.

One manifestation of the foreign policy paralysis was the silence emanating from a swathe of US ambassadorial residences in major world capitals. Some of their occupants had resigned to place their posts at the disposal of the president at the start of his second term; several career diplomats had moved or retired and not been replaced pending the decision of the new administration. The Paris residence has been unoccupied since the sudden death of Pamela Harriman in February.

Now, names are being mentioned for some of these posts. Only one appointment has been formally announced - that of Douglas "Pete" Peterson, who has the sensitive task of becoming the first post-war US ambassador to Vietnam.

Career diplomats are also tipped for Moscow and Bonn.

The most prominent of the political appointees look likely to be Tom Foley, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1989-94, to replace former Vice-President Walter Mondale in Tokyo, and Felix Rohatyn, a partner with the New York investment bank, Lazard Freres and a big fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, to Paris.

Rohatyn won what was seen as a hard-fought contest for Paris when the other mooted contender, the current US ambassador in New Delhi, gave up waiting and resigned to take up a senior business post.

This administration has taken an unusually long time to settle its second-term foreign policy appointments. Critics of the administration argue that this has inevitably affected policy-making and detracted from the authority of the United States abroad. Its supporters note the strong statements and rising profile of the new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. These, they contend, have kept the US on the world map and foreign policy in domestic view.

But there are at least two reasons why Mr Clinton's second administration has started so slowly in foreign policy. The first appears to be a lesson learnt from the first administration when individuals were named to official posts before security clearance and background investigations were completed, leading to embarrassment when names were subsequently withdrawn.

The second is, for Mr Clinton, an unfortunate coincidence. Revelations about dubious fund-raising by the Democratic Party for the campaign which got him reelected have focused on favours granted to the most generous donors and on contributions made by people with Asian, and particularly mainland Chinese, connections.

The possibility of a "Chinese connection" has undoubtedly become a complicating factor in official relations with China, and it remains to be cleared up. But the shadow cast over the practice of rewarding big political donors has had an immediate and practical effect. Ambassadorships are among the most sought-after rewards in a president's gift.

In present circumstances, too lavish a hand with the political postings would expose Mr Clinton to even more flak, something he can well do without.