There'll be no place like home for President Clinton

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - He was elected to be a domestic president, less fixated by foreign policy than George Bush. He was going to focus 'like a laser beam' on the problems of the US economy. But the Pentagon and the Iraqis beg to disagree: they have their own agenda for Bill Clinton. He, as a keen student of previous presidencies, knows that from Berlin to the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam to Iraq, every one of his Democratic predecessors has been diverted by world crises.

Rarely, though, has the first crisis come this quickly. His learning curve looks only a few degrees short of vertical. In Little Rock, his budget talks and recruitment interviews have been interrupted constantly by briefings on Saddam . . . and Bosnia . . . and President Yeltsin. As the anguished hordes who hope for jobs criticise the slow pace of appointments, the President-elect looks a little tired and is said to be irritable.

The Clinton foreign affairs plan had been to emphasise his agreement with conventional wisdom in a few key areas, including Iraq and Somalia, while choosing, in Warren Christopher, a cautious and veteran Secretary of State. Was there, at some subconscious level, a nave hope that he could put the world on hold while he sorted out the US economy? Certainly, the foreign policy buffs in Washington are already expressing alarm. For there was a time, embarrassingly recent, when the Arkansan was promising them something rather different.

Americans may not care very much about foreign policy issues. Believe it or not, there has been a desperate, little- publicised search in the House of Representatives to find enough competent Congressmen willing to serve on its Foreign Affairs Committee. ('There are no votes in handing out aid to foreigners.') But overseas issues are important for the Washington pundits, who can, even in an age of cable TV and paid-for commercials, mould the nation's perceptions of its leaders.

So when Mr Clinton started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, he took a deliberate decision to try to impress the pundits with his 'sound' views on foreign policy. They, he calculated, would transmit their enthusiasm to less- informed colleagues. By and large, this ripple strategy worked.

From December 1991 onwards, he gave a series of speeches and off-the-record briefings to the wary buffs. He praised Ronald Reagan's handling of the end of the Cold War; criticised George Bush for being too soft on China and the Serbs; offered strong support for Israel; and suggested, as the only Democratic candidate to have backed the Gulf war, that Mr Bush had erred in not trying to finish off Saddam Hussein.

These were all positions dear to the rightish, self-proclaimed New Democrats. Charles Krauthammer, a commentator and advocate of Reaganite foreign policy, argues that Mr Clinton was also trying to paint an idealistic, activist vision of the US as the great promoter of world democracy. The US would be bounding about the globe, getting tough with the Chinese, sorting out Saddam, etc. Mr Krauthammer is not alone in believing that 'it was all a hoax'.

We will see, perhaps very soon. Nothing about Mr Clinton is simple. His National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, is indeed a convinced activist and the Clinton foreign affairs speeches helped win over neo-conservatives at the time. While the president-to-be was struggling with press revelations about adultery, it

was the younger, New Democrat cheer- leaders who stood by him - and they

naturally assumed they would be rewarded after a Clinton victory with State Department appointments and influence at the heart of policy-making. Ho, ho,

ho. Put not your faith in politicians. So far, Mr Clinton has ignored them, and their outraged squawks have become deafening.

Far from being visionary, the foreign policy thinking is still tinged with the domestic imperatives of the campaign trail. Mr Clinton is, for instance, remarkably hawkish on Cuba, largely because of the big Cuban-exile vote in Florida. London and Dublin have been hoping to get his pledge to appoint a peace ambassador to Northern Ireland quickly torn up. But no one claims really to be able to untangle Clinton convictions from Clinton calculation. He has, after all, been on one or another campaign trail more or less constantly since 1974.

This is a conundrum that matters far beyond Washington. Was the activist, crusading Clinton who wooed the foreign policy buffs a year ago real, or just a quickly forgotten character played by this most brilliant of campaigners? Bosnia would be an obvious place to test this. The Vice-President-elect, Al Gore, is deeply and emotionally committed to intervention there, more so than Mr Clinton himself. Even here, though, the use of American soldiers is virtually ruled out.

Some people are already asking whether the anti-Vietnam, Clinton-

generation politicians have the moral authority to send troops to die in any foreign wars. And one sceptical pundit says of Mr Clinton: 'I suspect he sees in Bosnia the graveyard of his policies - a second Vietnam, which could destroy him as Lyndon Johnson was destroyed.' Vietnam may be pushing it, but the basic point is a sound one. The Clinton victory was a domestic one, and it will take a lot to make the new president forget it. Crisis management is one thing; crusading quite another.