Out of America: Clinton blinks too often for White House owls

PORTLAND - By his own standards of garrulous micro-management, Bill Clinton was pretty subdued at the great Save The Spotted Owl environmental conference here the other day. Interventions from the chair were few. Connoisseurs of the polymath President like myself, who were expecting scholarly asides on the cyclical problems of the logging industry and breeding patterns of owls and Pacific salmon, were disappointed.

One possibility is that his mind was already on Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, he was to meet at the weekend summit in Vancouver. More likely though, he was simply too embarrassed to hold forth. After 12 years of Republican neglect, this was supposed to have been the Green Administration. Instead, twice in the past week, he has caved in on a couple of issues dear to the environmentalist hearts. In doing so, the President has sent a suspicious signal that for all its rousing language, the Clinton administration may be a pushover.

Individually, the white flags can be justified. If President Clinton overruled Al Gore, the Vice-President and self-appointed keeper of the Environmental Covenant, and gave the

go-ahead for a toxic waste incinerator in Ohio, one must assume he did so for worthier reasons than a desire to soften up a key swing state in 1996. Ditto the abrupt decision to drop his plans to increase grazing and mining fees on federal lands ravaged by over-exploitation. After all, a posse of Democratic senators in the West was threatening to pull the plug on his entire economic package if he did not. A similiar recognition of the facts of life doubtlessly explains those abandoned campaign promises to Haitian refugees and Bosnian Muslims.

And there's another reason not to jump to conclusions. Since he took office, voguish opinion about Mr Clinton has bobbed around like a cork in a tempest. Blundering Bill of Zoe Baird and homosexuals-in-the-military fame quickly became Brilliant Bill after his State of the Union address, and the quickfire congressional approval he won for his five-year deficit- cutting package.

Now (pardon the alliterative stretch) it's a case of Blinking Bill, who gives way at the first hint of showdown. These gyrations will certainly continue. Bill Clinton in the White House remains an enigma, populist yet secretive, as affable as he is calculating. Who exactly is Bill Clinton? There has not yet been one of those 'defining moments' to tell us.

But look back to the President's days in Arkansas, and what is happening now is uncomfortably familiar - shades of Slick Willie of old, whose silky gifts of compromise could lead everyone up the garden path. Take the outburst here by Jay Hair, the president of the National Wildlife Federation. He was understandably livid about the abandonment of the higher fees. 'What started like a love affair,' lamented Mr Hair to anyone at the forest summit who would listen, 'looks like it may turn out to be more like date rape.'

Yet even his supporters worry over the grazing and mining climbdown. Give in to one group, they argue, and every other one will expect special treatment. A few more such blinks, and the economic package that is the centrepiece of his presidency will unravel. Such behaviour may be unavoidable. Nowhere more than in America is politics the art of the possible, of reconciling the claims of competing interests. In that skill, Bill Clinton is peerless. But he won the election by promising to stand up to the lobbyists. Can he? Once I asked Betsy Wright, the President's chief of staff for much of his time in the Little Rock State House, to list occasions when he had drawn the line. She was pressed to come up with a single one.

In Vancouver, of course, there was no need to draw any lines. If he is a novice in foreign affairs there was no sign of it - at least in the public part of the summit. President Clinton handled his meeting with President Yeltsin with consummate skill. In his fluent mastery of a hideously complicated brief, he sounded like a Russian Studies professor. He mixed support and prudence in just the right measure. But after the two leaders had left town, one small Freudian glitch came to light.

A local television reporter got hold of some notes forgotten by a Yeltsin aide who attended the working dinner on Saturday evening. Among other things, the scribbled jottings contained a presidential aside on the likelihood of Japan signing on to the Group of Seven leading industrial nations' aid package for Russia currently in the works: 'When the Japanese say 'yes' to us, they often mean 'no.' ' The White House brushed off the incident, though Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, was instantly on the phone to Tokyo, smoothing ruffled feathers.

That, however, was not the point. Russians, environmentalists, and everyone else dealing with Bill Clinton these days, are fervently hoping the President wasn't subconsciously describing his own modus operandi.

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