Leading Article: The mismatch in Clinton's record

Click to follow
PRESIDENT CLINTON has a remarkable ability to claw his way back not only from the brink but from a good way down the abyss. He did so as governor of Arkansas, to the point of losing the post and then winning it back. He was written off at least twice during his presidential election campaign, only to emerge triumphant. As President, too, he has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat: first over last year's important bill to reduce the Budget deficit, then with the North Atlantic Free Trade Area, and now with his cherished crime bill. So far, however, this ability to create and push through a winnable policy has not characterised his foreign policy.

Mr Clinton had made the crime bill and health-care reform the centrepieces of his domestic legislative programme. The crime bill's unexpected defeat on a procedural point 10 days ago by a coalition that included unhappy Democrats was seen as a symptom of a weakened presidency. It was also expected to damage the prospects of even a diluted health-care bill.

The President's success in pushing it through after minor revision and intensive lobbying must help his public standing: this was, after all, a bill that enjoyed broad support. Its passage should have been easier, however, and prospects for a health-care package resembling his initial proposals remain dim.

The contrast between Mr Clinton's tenacious pursuit of his domestic goals and his ad hoc, ill thought-out approach to many foreign policy issues is striking, from Somalia, through human rights in China to Bosnia. Over Haiti he has reversed President Theodore Roosevelt's favoured adage: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick'. Noisy threats against the regime in Port- au-Prince remain unfulfilled.

As for Cuba, steps taken to arrest the flow of refugees and to tighten the squeeze on Castro's economy seem to be mutually contradictory. Most of the exodus is prompted by sheer poverty. Action to curb private remittances from America to Cuba and cut back on charter flights from the US must deepen it.

To most Europeans, America's obsessive desire to bring down Fidel Castro is almost as baffling as its reluctance to limit or ban the public sale of guns. The domestic Cuban equivalent of the National Rifle Association is the Cuban- American National Foundation, based in Miami. It supports the administration's new ban on Cuban refugees, and its members naturally want to take over a liberated Cuba.

With Florida's Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, due for re- election in mid-November, a bow to political considerations may be wise. But across the water Fidel Castro has been taking small steps to liberalise the island's tottering economy. To give him a chance to blame American imperialism for his people's further suffering could help to prolong his survival. It is the cause of reform that needs encouragement in Cuba, not the anti- American nationalism which has helped to keep Mr Castro in power. This should be done by loosening, not tightening, the trade embargo.