Suddenly, U.S. diplomatic leadership takes a back seat to politics CAMPAIGN '92


UNITED NATIONS -- There was a poignant irony in James A. Baker III's resignation as secretary of state as the United Nations was dealing with one of the most severe crises in Europe since World War II.

It signified that for the duration of the election campaign, U.S. leadership in the Yugoslavia crisis and world affairs as a whole will take a back seat to politics.

While the United States may eventually be compelled to commit force both to Yugoslavia and Iraq, it will do so in reaction to events rather than by seizing an early initiative.

The State Department, which institutionally likes to think of itself as separate and immune from politics, will be run by trusted professionals headed by Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a central figure in American diplomatic life for more than two decades almost without interruption, serving under five presidents.

But the energy that comes from a politician's determination to put his stamp on the world with far-reaching personal achievements will be missing with Mr. Baker's departure, as will the drive of a staff that strives to make him look good.

It was his politician's tactical instincts, together with legal skills and willingness to take selected risks, that marked Mr. Baker's key achievements as secretary.

These were the end of U.S.-Soviet proxy wars in Central America and Afghanistan; a revolutionized relationship with the former Soviet Union that included deep weapons cuts; assembly of the Persian Gulf coalition; and a renewed Middle East peace process.

The current overriding foreign policy issues -- the Middle East, Iraq and Yugoslavia -- may now be "managed," as Mr. Eagleburger said recently in reference to Yugoslavia, in the hope that explosions can be averted.

The Mideast peace talks have taken on a life of their own that will require less American pressure, and there is hope for an early Palestinian-Israeli agreement on autonomy.

But should volatile Middle East politics create an impasse, it seems doubtful that the United States, in the final stretch of a presidential race, will respond quickly and strongly enough to reassert control.

With Iraq, U.N. resolutions backed by a still-strong coalition will keep Saddam Hussein's threat to the surrounding region under control by preventing him from rebuilding weapons of mass destruction.

Another assault on U.N. authority like the recent arms-inspection showdown in Baghdad will bring a quicker reaction, perhaps followedby a military strike.

But the U.N. and the coalition have already shown a tolerance for Mr. Hussein's brutality toward his own people, even though it explicitly violates a Security Council resolution. The ongoing repression of Iraq's Shiite population in the southern marshes has yet to provoke an international outcry.

With Yugoslavia, the prevailing administration wish seems to be that, if the atrocities and aggression can't be stopped, they will at least fade from television screens.

To the extent that Yugoslavia represents the disturbing shape of the post-Cold War world, a concerted approach to reforming it will have to await the November elections.

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