One year ago today, Bill Clinton was elected president with a plurality of only 43 percent of the votes. After nine and a half months in office, his approval rating is only 1 percent higher, according to a poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. Both the influential elite and the general public display an uncertainty about the American role in the world -- one could call it incipient isolationism -- that surely reflects the indecisive leadership of this administration.
The other day, New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman pressed national security adviser W. Anthony Lake for a definition of U.S. foreign policy. The best Mr. Lake could come up with -- this is no joke -- was "pragmatic neo-Wilsonian." The phase is an oxymoron, to be sure, but it is in sync with Mr. Lake's stated goal of "enlarging" democracy around the world now that containment of the Communist threat has moved off the charts.
Yet both the elite and the general public want little if any part of such Wilsonian idealism. The "influentials," as they are called in the Times Mirror survey, advocate an internationalism that is "cautious and minimalist," with low priority to promoting democracy, human rights and free markets as foreign policy goals. As for the general public, "sentiment for American withdrawal from a leadership role in the world is twice as high."
During his nine and a half months in office, Mr. Clinton has conducted foreign policy in such a way that the trend lines all point in directions opposite to what Mr. Lake advocates. Zig-zag policies in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti have created disillusion with the United Nations, wariness about putting American troops at risk and feelings that the U.S. should concentrate on its own problems.
This last sentiment was promoted by Candidate Clinton, but as president he has an institutional obligation to provide world leadership. For this he was unprepared and appointed a national security team that did not fill the void. Neither Secretary of State Warren Christopher nor Anthony Lake are conceptualists in the Kissinger-Brzezinski tradition. The influential elite that backed up presidential containment policy over 40 years is as ambivalent as the White House.
The Clintonians believe they are at a juncture comparable to the situation Harry Truman inherited at the end of World War II. But where are the Marshalls, Achesons, Lovetts and McCloys who were "present at the creation"? They have not emerged, nor has an underlying consensus.
This has implications, too, for Mr. Clinton's domestic initiatives. With foreign crises pushing into the headlines, a public obsessed by a stagnant economy and violence in the streets watches the president's performance on the world stage and becomes less confident he can deliver at home. But these are still early days in the administration. The president is a fast learner and it is not too late to turn things around -- provided he listens hard to what the elite and the public are saying.