Leading Article: Clinton's policies create confusion

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BILL CLINTON's foreign policy problems, which are examined on page 8, derive partly from the complexity of the new world disorder and partly from his own fumbled responses. In the months since he took office he has gained the reputation of a gambler who begins by playing for high stakes but suffers from nerves when faced with a resolute opponent. The latest example came last week when he backed away from his threat to withdraw China's trading privileges unless it improved its human rights record.

All US administrations start by being hobbled by campaign promises. In 1992 Mr Clinton criticised President Bush for feebleness in confronting China, Serbia and Haiti, but his own encounters with all three over the past year have ended in humiliation.

None of these setbacks has been deeply damaging on its own; it is the cumulative effect that begins to tell. This points to part of the problem, which is that one big threat - the Soviet Union - has been replaced by a lot of smaller ones, making it difficult to define objectives, set priorities and mobilise domestic opinion or allied support abroad in the way made easy by the Cold War. The task is even heavier because the American public - never deeply interested - has lost all interest in foreign affairs.

Mr Clinton is not alone in being unsure what to do about Bosnia. The Europeans have been as bad, and have used his confusion as an excuse. In Washington, too, the foreign policy establishment finds it easier to castigate his indecision than to agree on what it would do in his place. But Mr Clinton is both a victim and an instigator of America's diminishing interest in foreign policy. He has also failed in one of the primary duties of a president - that of imposing order on his squabbling departments. Many of his failings in foreign policy are similar to those at home. In both he often appears rudderless, devoting his energies to ad hoc solutions that store up problems for the future.

At the weekend Mr Clinton said he did not intend to change Warren Christopher, his Secretary of State, or Tony Lake, his National Security Adviser, because the root of his problem is not his policy, it is communicating that policy to the American people. But Mr Clinton often appears so unclear about his own objectives that they become extremely difficult to communicate to anyone at all.

In addition, Mr Clinton's lack of resolution is so well advertised that his opponents at home and abroad believe they have only to stand up to him to see him back down. Until he emphatically corrects that impression, confusion will continue.