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Foreign issues exert pull on president's attention


WASHINGTON -- As a candidate, Bill Clinton needled George Bush for his globe-trotting ways, vowing that, if elected, he would focus "like a laser beam" on America's economy and people.

But eight weeks into his presidency, Mr. Clinton is being reminded that it's a big world out there, that everybody wants something from the United States and that many of the most pressing international problems just won't wait.

In the past two weeks alone, Mr. Clinton has met with President Francois Mitterrand of France, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.

"Almost every day he is talking to a foreign leader," said a senior White House foreign policy adviser.

And each visitor brought an urgent agenda.

Mr. Mitterrand ostensibly was here to request a summit meeting of the industrialized democracies, though he also wanted to bolster his political standing at home.

Mr. Rabin wanted assurances that the United States' $3 billion annual foreign aid to Israel won't fall victim to the budget-cutting mania sweeping Washington. He also wanted to discuss how the Clinton administration could help Israel in the tortuous Middle East peace process.

Father Aristide's problem was clear and challenging: He wants his country back.

Even a purely social visit like Mr. Reynolds' had a serious undercurrent.

The Irish leader came on St. Patrick's Day to the White House, where he presented Mr. Clinton with a Waterford crystal bowl full of shamrocks.

But beneath all the blarney, the meetings between Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Clinton dealt with what, if anything, the United States can do to help mediate the centuries-old rift between Britain and Ireland.

"Not small matters, are they?" one White House official quipped.

Moreover, administration officials said these visits don't begin to tell the story of how much time the president is spending on foreign policy.

"When Rabin comes, it's not just the four hours in meetings with Rabin -- there's a lot of preparation in advance, too," said a White House foreign policy aide.

Robert S. Strauss, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said yesterday that the amount of time Mr. Clinton is having to spend on foreign policy "is very difficult for him."

And the problems keep coming. Mr. Clinton has said that he is personally reviewing ways to tighten economic sanctions against the Serbs, who are viewed as the main aggressor in the Balkan crisis.

The president has also spent time being briefed about death squads in El Salvador, nuclear proliferation in North Korea and human rights in China.

"He's very hands-on on these issues," one administration official said.

The foreign policy issue taking up by far the bulk of the president's time, though, is how to help the economies and emerging democracies of Russia and the other former Soviet republics, White House aides said.

On April 3 and 4, Mr. Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin are to meet in Vancouver, Canada.

One senior administration official said that another wave of meetings with foreign leaders will come after the Vancouver meeting.

Also on the plate for the new U.S. president are a possible June meeting in Europe of NATO leaders and a July economic summit in Japan.

A number of administration officials have taken pains this week to point out that Mr. Clinton, who has a college degree in international relations, did talk about foreign policy during the campaign and, in fact, stressed even to audiences that might not have wanted to hear it the need for significant U.S. aid to Russia.

"This is an internationalist," said one key Clinton administration foreign policy aide. "He never had any illusion that the world would go away for four years while he tried to fix America's economy. He also recognizes that what happens in the world -- especially Russia -- effects Americans."

But if Mr. Clinton had such a cosmopolitan view of the world, what was he thinking in August 1991 when he said, "I've watched Bush, amazed that he has a better plan for Moscow, Russia, than Moscow, Idaho, or Moscow, Arkansas."

Or last year in New Hampshire, when he said, "It's time for us to have a president who cares more about Littleton, N.H., than Liechtenstein, more about Manchester than Micronesia."

The answer, Clinton administration officials concede, is he was trying to win an election.

But some Democrats believe that Mr. Clinton ought to keep his own advice to Mr. Bush in mind.

Today, a crucial vote is coming in the House on Mr. Clinton's economic package.

Although the White House is confident that it has the votes to pass the president's stimulus package despite opposition from conservative Democrats led by Texan Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, at least one Southern Democratic congressman believes that Mr. Clinton should have spent more time this week twisting arms on Capitol Hill than wining and dining foreign leaders.

"He was fooling around with Rabin when he should have been fooling around with Charlie Stenholm," said a top aide to this congressman.

At the same time, however, Mr. Clinton is not alone in his preoccupation with foreign policy.

On Tuesday, Mr. Clinton met with congressional leaders to discuss issues of mutual importance to the White House and Congress.

According to White House communications director George Stephanopoulos, foreign affairs absorbed 50 minutes of an hourlong meeting.

"The Russian situation took up the bulk of the meeting," Mr. LTC Stephanopoulos said. "Most of the people in the room agreed that pursuing democracy and market reform in Russia was an important goal for the president."

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