WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In Moscow, Boris Yeltsin's forces were attacking rebelling legislators. In Somalia, the body of an American soldier was being dragged through the streets. In Sacramento, President Clinton was answering questions about health care at a town meeting. What's wrong with this picture?
The answer, of course, is that once again events have demonstrated that the president, any president, cannot control the agenda for the entire world -- and, as in this case, is in danger of being seen as irrelevant when significant decisions need to be made.
Such a perception is not entirely fair to Clinton, of course. In an age of instant and continuous communication, there is no reason to believe he could not deal with the U.S. policy on both Russia and Somalia from Sacramento or anywhere else. And in the case of the uprising in Moscow, the only option open to the president was to support Yeltsin and hope it turned out well, which seems to have been the case.
The situation in Somalia, however, is somewhat different. While Clinton was pressing his "campaign mode" schedule of appearances in California, military officials were gradually revealing that there had been more American casualties than originally believed and that there were other U.S. soldiers missing who may be prisoners of the forces of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the warlord -- whatever that means -- who has shown such an amazing ability to defy the military forces of the world's only superpower.
In this case, there clearly are decisions that need to be made by the president, even if it means putting health care and the North American Free Trade Agreement aside for a few days. The question here, reduced to its essence, is whether the United States is going to continue drifting into a situation that will cost more American lives.
There is some obvious political content in both situations. The uprising in Moscow gives valuable ammunition to conservatives who argue that the Clinton administration is trying to cut the defense budget too deeply and too quickly. So long as there is a scintilla of doubt about who controls the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union, that argument is going to carry some weight.
The debate over the U.S. role in Somalia already has begun in Congress, although it had been muted until this latest attack. At some point, Clinton is going to have to spell out a justification for the continuing mission of the U.S. forces there, a task made infinitely more difficult by the new casualties. The notion of Americans dying in fighting with some Somalian "warlord" is obviously one that won't be accepted by the people whose sons and daughters are being sent into harm's way, however noble the original goal of preventing mass starvation there.
The pressure on Clinton in dealing with these question is heightened by his lack of experience in dealing with foreign policy. This doesn't mean the president is not fully capable of making the right decisions, but it does mean that he needs to project an image of himself as convincingly competent and forceful in doing so. In the case of Somalia, it is probably not enough to say that young Americans died for a "vital humanitarian" cause.
The operative question now is whether the U.S. mission has changed from that original humanitarian purpose of preventing mass starvation to getting rid of Aidid or whether the former is possible without the latter being carried out. As Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, hardly a dove, put it: "It seems to me it's time to take a hard, hard look at why we're still there."
It is clear, of course, that Americans are far more focused on domestic concerns than on foreign policy problems, just as they were in the election last year when then-President George Bush's performance in the international arena proved to be almost totally irrelevant to the electorate.
And in the long run, Bill Clinton is probably going to be judged by that same electorate on the condition of the economy and whether he succeeds in achieving some reform of the health-care system. But any final verdict on his presidency also must include a judgment on how he responds to what happens in places like Moscow and Mogadishu. No president can pick his spots.