Inside File: US envoy soothes Britain's ruffled feathers

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IT WAS a difficult few days for Ray Seitz. Nobody had told the United States ambassador to London that President Bill Clinton had chosen to bare his soul about his view of the world to the Washington Post.

Although Mr Clinton conducted his interview on foreign policy last Friday, Mr Seitz heard of it only on Sunday night, the day the article appeared. When the ambassador was told that Mr Clinton had spoken of Britain and France frustrating a potential US policy success over Bosnia, he thought the President was referring to a new initiative that had been blocked by the Europeans. It was only when he saw a copy of the article that he realised the President had harked back to the laboriously healed rift over Britain's refusal six months ago to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia's Muslims.

Nor had Mr Seitz been told of the equally startling interview given by his immediate boss, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State. Mr Christopher's declaration that 'Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world', and his call to look to Asia instead, set alarm bells ringing about the 'special relationship'.

All this, Mr Seitz had to go on British television and radio to defend. (His featuring on Desert Island discs at the weekend - permitted luxury: a box of family photos - was a coincidence). In the ultimate challenge to any diplomat, he had to defend what his masters had done without necessarily agreeing with it.

Mr Seitz, one of the most popular ambassadors in London, had his posting extended this year despite a change of administration. He even had to ask his British supporters to tone down their insistence that he be kept on.

Mr Seitz sought to tap down his President's words. He also communicated to the President his concerns about the 'unintended effects' of his comments. Mr Clinton is said to have understood and has, according to a White House source, 'made an effort to make amends'.

Washington sources say that when Mr Clinton revealed that 'John Major told me he wasn't sure he could sustain his government' if he agreed to lift the arms embargo, the verbose President did not stop to think that comments made to a Washington newspaper would bounce back on the British political scene. 'He hadn't fully considered the implications for John Major,' said one source. 'Former governors . . . have to learn that Washington is not a state legislature.'

Veterans like Mr Seitz also thought there was a certain irony in claiming Bosnia as a frustrated success of US policy. The US crisis over Somalia has served to inject a note of sobriety into some of the administration's more impetuous proposals on Bosnia. In reaching back to Bosnia as a lost opportunity, while admitting its mistakes over Somalia, the administration skated over the fact that risks taken in Bosnia would have amounted to a Somalian quagmire 10 times over.

As for the remark by Mr Christopher, insiders say it was an example of internal sniping by a Californian lawyer at what he considers his Euro-centric, East Coast colleagues in the adminstration. As a West Coaster and former trade negotiator with Japan, Mr Christopher has a natural Pacific bias. 'He said it with some spin,' said one insider. 'There was a barb in it, and the barb was Washington itself. It then ricocheted back on Europe.'

All this came on the heels of what had been the administration's first co-ordinated presentation of Mr Clinton's foreign policy. Four speeches by Anthony Lake, the National Security Adviser, Madeleine Albright, the ambassador to the UN, Mr Christopher and the President himself, had finally given the semblance of a framework. 'Then, within a matter of weeks,' said a senior insider, 'we end up with a picture that is mixed up and confused. It wasn't a very good week for US foreign policy.'

But it could have been much worse. Mr Seitz was not summoned to the Foreign Office for an explanation. When he called on other business on Tuesday morning, a symbiotic discussion took place about Mr Clinton's learning curve. And at the end of the day, everybody agreed that Britain's sending a frigate to join the US-led naval blockade of Haiti would pour oil on the troubled waters of the special relationship and was a 'most happy coincidence'.