WASHINGTON -- President Clinton entered office with the job of charting America's foreign policy beyond the Cold War. Nine months later, a series of self-inflicted wounds to his prestige has hobbled his efforts, raising questions about his ability to project force credibly abroad.
Doubts about the American leader's competence in world affairs -- overseas, on Capitol Hill and among the public -- are high. In a recent Gallup poll, approval of the president's handling of foreign affairs dropped from 51 percent to 40 percent.
And some critics fear that as a result of the administration's conflicting signals, adversaries such as President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia could miscalculate Mr. Clinton's resolve to the point where the United States might be drawn into a dangerous conflict.
One measure of his eroding support is the effort that Mr. Clinton's aides had to expend last week to prevent his Somalia policy from being derailed by a Congress controlled by his own party.
The Senate agreed early Friday to his withdrawal deadline of March 31 but diminished his freedom to maneuver by voting to cut off money after that date. It was the first time since 1973 that the Senate had voted to halt funds for armed conflict.
The tough new posture toward Haiti, involving the use of warships to enforce sanctions aimed at a tiny military elite that opposes democracy, may be too late to rescue Mr. Clinton's world standing.
The increasingly dim view overseas is reflected in a scathing editorial in the Economist calling for President Clinton to dump Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.
"If the world's greatest power is found habitually mumbling behind its sleeve, it is not good enough to blame the chaotic state of the maps," the British magazine said. "It is time to ask whether the men in charge are up to their jobs."
Hoping to improve its standing, the administration has mounted a major public-relations effort, with aides portraying the president as keenly engaged, pursuing a steady course and reacting skillfully to unpredictable events.
They insist that the big picture -- support for Russian reform, the G-7 summit in Tokyo, the Middle East peace process -- shows durable successes for the president.
"It's difficult to control every person in every corner of the world," said George Stephanopoulos, a Clinton adviser.
Small crises, big crises
The Clinton team appears weakest, according to its critics, in keeping track of an abundance of small crises and building public support for U.S. policies. As a result, it finds itself with little room to maneuver when, as with Somalia and Haiti, the small crises suddenly become big ones.
And in the post-Cold War world, it is those little adversaries -- the undemocratic leaders, with dangerous ambitions, of poor, often backward countries -- that pose perhaps the most serious threat to world stability.
"Recent events have not enhanced our reputation amongst potential adversaries nor amongst our allies," said James Schlesinger, a Cabinet member in the Carter and Ford administrations.
"A great power must send signals that are clear, and build relatively stable expectations about how [it] will behave. We have not sent signals that are all that clear."
Critics say one reason for the unclear signals is that, out of naivete, inattention or excessive ambition, Mr. Clinton has embarked on policies that he cannot sustain.
The clearest example is Somalia. Coming into office, Mr. Clinton boosted U.S. support for the United Nations.
The administration actively supported Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's goal of "nation-building" in Somalia once the original mission of securing relief deliveries had been achieved and most U.S. troops had been withdrawn.
After forces loyal to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid killed 24 Pakistanis, the United States denounced General Aidid as a thug and contributed troops to the U.N. effort to track him down.
Meanwhile, a senior administration official acknowledges, the United States failed to push for a political solution to Somalia's chaos.
Mounting American casualties caused an abrupt and complete policy reversal. In addition to announcing a fixed date for withdrawal, the United States has halted attacks on General Aidid, negotiated with members of his clan and suggested that he could play a leadership role in Somalia.
In addition, in the face of congressional opposition to Americans' serving under foreign command, Mr. Clinton has all but abandoned his effort to bolster the United Nations' peacekeeping capability.
Such a turnabout may have been a necessary adjustment to what Mr. Schlesinger calls the "Wilsonian illusions" that marked the administration's approach to the world.
But the immediate result was to send a message of U.S. weakness to other adversaries, a message that Mr. Clinton proceeded to compound in Haiti.
Fewer than 50 unruly thugs on the Port-au-Prince waterfront prompted Mr. Clinton to withdraw a ship carrying U.S. military trainers and engineers.
The White House, while defending the action, acknowledges that it sent the wrong signal.
The speed with which Mr. Clinton abandoned each mission came on the heels of backtracking and wavering over the use of military force in the former Yugoslavia.
The vacillation raised new doubts about U.S. staying power and the president's willingness to use armed force as a foreign policy instrument.
The Clinton administration also seemed unprepared for the explosive impact that casualties and the capture of a U.S. helicopter pilot in Somalia had on public opinion.
"If we cannot tolerate, when we engage our armed forces, either prisoners being taken or people being killed, we're out of business," said Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George Bush.
But Mr. Clinton has been unwilling to invest much of his limited political capital in making the case to the public and Congress for missions that could cost American lives.
"The president must provide leadership to generate that public support," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Many of us can help in our modest ways -- but he must lead."
The people sent to take up the slack with Congress -- Mr. Christopher; Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake; and Defense Secretary Les Aspin -- were not judged very successful.
Mr. Clinton's lack of foreign policy leadership has, if anything, detracted from his domestic agenda and forced him and his aides to concentrate on damage control.
And it has provided a field day for Republicans. Yesterday, in his weekly radio address, Mr. Clinton omitted mention of Haiti and other foreign policy issues, but the Republicans jumped on such issues in their radio response.
Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire said that "in key areas, namely defense policy, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, the administration has stumbled, and the results have been disastrous."
But more may be at stake than Mr. Clinton's political standing. Such is the uncertainty about his actions that a foreign leader could miscalculate, igniting a conflict that the United States may be unable to escape.
Mr. Scowcroft said in an interview that the administration's wavering on the use of force in Bosnia had undercut its warning to Mr. Milosevic, Serbia's president, not to attack Macedonia or the Serbian province of Kosovo. It is widely feared that such an attack would trigger an international conflict involving Greece, Turkey and perhaps Russia.
"If I were Milosevic I'd say 'Eh, when it comes right down to it, they're a paper tiger,' " said the retired Air Force general.