WASHINGTON -- Apologists for President Clinton's performance on foreign policy say the president is simply the victim of some very bad luck -- "snake bit," as the politicians like to put it.
He's not the one who put us in Somalia, they argue. He didn't create the generations of chaos in Haiti. The war in Bosnia started long before Clinton took office.
But if it is fair to say Clinton has had some bad luck, it is equally fair to question the competence he and his advisers have shown in playing the cards they were dealt. And it is those failures that have put the president so much on the defensive politically. Events in Somalia and Haiti in the last week make the point in stark terms.
Clinton had reason to be encouraged when Mohamed Farah Aidid decided to release Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, thus freeing the president from a situation in which he could not order a total withdrawal of American troops without leaving behind a hostage whose plight had been dramatically shown on television for a week.
But in political terms the winner in this development was clearly Aidid, the erstwhile "warlord," now being called a "clan leader" and addressed as "General." He was instantly transformed from being the chief of a pack of thugs into being a principal in negotiations with the United States and United Nations over the future of Somalia.
Aidid even was confident enough to invite six foreign reporters and a camera crew to a news conference somewhere in Mogadishu.
So now the question that follows logically is: what happened to the policy of trying to bring him to justice for ordering the attack in which 24 Pakistani peacekeepers died in June as well as the one that killed 18 Americans and brought down Mike Durant just last week?
Asked whether the U.S. was still chasing Aidid, the president offered a baffling response.
"We have a United Nations resolution, and we ought to pursue it," Clinton said. "Now there may be other ways to do it, and I am open to that."
Translated later, that seemed to mean some investigating commission made up of Africans that would determine Aidid's culpability -- but clearly would not prevent him from having a role in the structure of a new government for Somalia. In others words, Aidid is coming out of this whole thing smelling like a rose.
The president had no sooner welcomed the news that Durant had been liberated than the television screen filled with another sensation -- the assassination in Port-au-Prince of Guy Malary, the Haitian justice minister-designate in the Aristide government.
The film of the bloody body of Malary and his guards was a reminder, if any was needed, that the so-called "attaches" in Haiti today are not different from the infamous Tontons Macoutes, the armed terrorists of Jean Claude "Papa Doc" Duvalier 25 years ago.
Several questions bearing on the Clinton administration's competence here come immediately to the forefront.
First, what reason did the government have to believe that these quasi-military figures would be any less brutal because the United States and United Nations had decided it was time to restore the leader they were pledged to resist?
Second, what might have happened if those 200 American servicemen, unarmed advisers, had been landed in Haiti rather than forced to steam away? Did the president avoid a disaster simply because they were blocked right on the dock? It doesn't take any imagination to see how horrendous the risks might have been.
And, finally, is the continued talk of installing Aristide realistic? What price is the president willing to pay?
The level of confidence in President Clinton's performance in international affairs was evident in opinion polls when he went on television to outline his intentions in Somalia. Before the speech, Americans, by a small plurality, disapproved rather than approved of his handling of foreign policy. After the speech, that margin widened -- the direct reverse of the usual predilection of Americans to support their president in such circumstances.
Up to a point, this may have been simply a visceral reaction to the losses in Somalia, and a reflection of growing isolationism in a nation with serious domestic problems. And to the extent that is true, the president has been plagued by bad luck. But the voters are also clearly waiting for more evidence of his competence.