Clinton 'unsteady' in Naples

Rupert Cornwell@IndyVoices
Monday 11 July 1994 23:02

IT WAS, by no stretch of the imagination, an unmitigated flop. But Naples 1994 did not exactly provide the five-star international performance the Clinton camp was looking for, as the President heads home tonight to face what could be one of the most testing spells of his 18 months in the White House.

Just a year ago, at his debut G7 summit in Tokyo, a young Democratic President charmed his peers with his informality and intellect. This time the gathering was only halfway through before the Washington Post had detected a very different mood. Other Western leaders were increasingly worried by 'his penchant for reversing policies and floating half- baked initiatives'. Mr Clinton, it declared, was a leader who preferred to be liked rather than feared.

The New York Times was no more flattering, referring to 'several very unsteady moments'. These included the President's unfelicitous remarks about the dollar before the summit began, his hasty withdrawal of a vague trade initiative after objections from the French, and the bucket of icy water which President Boris Yeltsin poured on Mr Clinton's prediction that all Russian troops would be out of Estonia by the appointed date of 31 August.

The shelving of new global trade talks, the disposition of a few thousand Russian soldiers in the Baltic - and even the continuing slide in the US dollar - are not of themselves issues to make or break a President's domestic policy plans. But three more unhelpful ingredients have been tossed into the media opinion-makers' pot, at just the wrong moment.

Even before his second European trip in a month, approval for Mr Clinton was bumping along below 50 per cent, despite the steadily improving economy. Over the next six weeks he faces a string of new perils, ranging from possible failure by Congress to pass a health-care package, televised congressional hearings on the Whitewater affair, and court rulings which will bring the sexual harassment case brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, back to the front pages.

Foreign travel normally boosts a President's standing. This one, clearly, has not.

The summit's careful choreography was disrupted by the death of Kim Il Sung and the endless irritant of Haiti. US officials have tried to sell the summit as the first example of the more relaxed and collegiate style of leadership which Mr Clinton wants for the post-Cold War era. But the US media has not been buying this view.

The Washington Post noted that the President seemed to want to turn the G7 into 'a travelling graduate seminar to ponder Big Questions'. This might be a welcome break from the pre-programmed stodginess of previous G7s, but it was unlikely to produce concrete action.

'The spontaneous way in which the trade initiative was proposed, for example,' the newspaper commented, 'had much to do with its rejection.'

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