The soundbite diplomat

US foreign policy under Clinton has turned and twisted. John Lichfield tries to untangle the knots
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US diplomacy has resolved the latest Middle East conflict for all parties, save the 300 dead Lebanese and their families. Warren Christopher's tenacious jaw-jawing deserves much of the credit. But where was the United States in the early days of the fighting?

An important ally, Israel, has been extricated from a tight corner of, mainly, its own making. But, all in all, the episode has damaged three important US policy goals in the region. It has weakened Arab popular tolerance of the peace process, it has emboldened Syria, and it has loosened the bars of the diplomatic cage that Washington has been trying to construct around Iran.

This episode typifies the strengths, but also the weaknesses, of Clinton foreign policy as it has emerged, after a couple of false starts, over the past three years. In Haiti, in Bosnia and in the Middle East, when they were forced to do something, Bill Clinton and his team have operated energetically and, generally, successfully. But in each case Clinton was impelled to act by the consequences of his own previous poor judgement or inattention.

There is, as yet, no clear Clinton doctrine in foreign affairs, but there is a Clinton style - characterised by a kind of diplomacy interruptus. US achievements in Bosnia and Haiti could yet be destroyed by Washington's insistence on pulling out its troops before the job is a quarter done. In the Middle East, bursts of frenetic activity have punctuated long periods of seeming negligence.

Some of this is not Bill Clinton's fault. With the Cold War and Soviet Union gone, any American president would have trouble defining new rules by which to play. The old ideological handholds in US public opinion have disappeared, and both right and left are tempted by isolationism. Congress, no longer cowed by the President's role as Cold War warrior- in-chief, has reasserted its right to meddle in foreign affairs.

Clinton was a foreign policy innocent when he came to power. But even a foreign policy professional like George Bush was at a loss in the new world. President Bush's success in organising a coalition to fight the Gulf war was trumpeted as the beginning of a New World Order but, in truth, it held few lessons for the future. The principal conclusion was that international affairs would no longer be part of a giant board game, with two clear sides; it would be one damn thing after another.

Since Bill Clinton took the oath of office in January 1993, the US has had three foreign policies, sometimes overlapping, and frequently at odds with each other. The first - now largely abandoned - was a kind of CNN foreign policy, driven by TV images of suffering and a generalised desire to "do good". This proved disastrous in Somalia and, initially, in Haiti. In Bosnia, it drove the Clinton administration to side with the Bosnian Muslims and oppose, and even to thwart, the more realistic (some would say cynical) policy of its European allies.

Michael Mandelbaum, a former Clinton adviser turned trenchant critic, says the CNN approach was programmed to fail because it was not tied to a calculation - even an enlightened calculation - of US national interests in a world crowded with good and deserving causes. In each case when the crunch came, Clinton baulked at committing US lives or treasure.

In parallel, during its first couple of years, the Clinton administration ran another foreign policy, directed from the Department of Commerce, not the Department of State. As promised during the 1992 campaign, Clinton set out to shift the emphasis in world affairs from geo-politics to geo- economics. He promised to engage in the world market but on fairer terms.

"Engagement" was pursued vigorously in the enactment of the new Gatt accord and the North Atlantic Free Trade Area. "Fairness" was pursued in a clumsy and bullying way which got up the noses of America's most important European and Asian allies.

The third stage of Clinton foreign policy - the current phase - consists of fighting fires: some of them thrown up spontaneously; some of them lit by the administration's own earlier, failed policies. Clinton's successful interventions in Haiti and Bosnia were driven by a frantic desire to rescue foreign situations that were threatening to embarrass the administration domestically.

The origin of the extraordinary Balkan efforts of Richard Holbrooke was the congressional vote to by-pass the President and supply arms to the Bosnian Muslims. US intervention there has been remarkably successful, but it has been achieved by abandoning the previous pro-Muslim policy and imposing the kind of partition long sought by the Europeans and frustrated by the US.

Other examples of ad hoc policy and incoherence abound. The new security pact with Japan - though useful in itself - was driven largely by the need to rescue US-Japanese relations from the damage caused by the trade negotiations and the rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by US servicemen. Relations with Russia started with an apparently sensible approach: to promote market reforms to preserve democracy. Unfortunately, it appears, six weeks from the first round of the Russian presidential election, that a democratic majority of Russians has lost patience with free markets.

This is bad luck. But Eastern relations with Russia have been unnecessarily strained by the on-off commitment of the Clinton administration to expand Nato to the east - something calculated to compound growing anti-Western feeling in Russia. At the same time Clinton has become locked in an embrace with Boris Yeltsin as exclusive as George Bush's earlier bear-hug of Michael Gorbachev (something Clinton mocked in 1992). A Yeltsin defeat this summer would be a disaster for Clinton: one of three electoral time-bombs now ticking far from US shores (the others being in Bosnia and the Middle East).

In 1992, Bill Clinton mocked Bush for his preoccupation with foreign affairs. If elected, he promised, he would - in terms of presidential time and energy - bring the legions home. Four years later, President Clinton told the New York Times that his re-election campaign would be based partly on his "record of foreign policy success". He would, he said, contrast his record of engagement with the world with the isolationist tendency of the Republicans. The US could not be secure and prosperous at home, he said, unless "engaged and leading abroad, working with our allies and the UN".

This, on one reading, is a colossal cheek. But Clinton does deserve credit for holding the line against a more full-blooded US isolationism. He has repeated as a kind of mantra his belief that the US - once largely sufficient unto itself - is now deeply enmeshed in the world, whether it likes it or not. This has been the rhetoric and the theory of Clinton foreign policy. The practice has often been a pseudo-engagement, a sound-bite diplomacy, which has brought us little nearer to a stable, coherent US approach to the post-Soviet era.