Straws Pile Up on the Camel's Back


The year starts with great promise for the United States and its president. That is probably a bad omen.

The problems we anticipate are the ones that need not materialize. What we don't see can blindside us.

The year begins with two streams of economic news that, until recently, many observers had thought to be incompatible.

One is the relentless stream of moderately good indicators about the U.S. economy. The other is the gloom spreading over Japan like the fog.

The Japanese economy had loomed so large in our imaginations that many thought its recession would drag down the rest of the world. It is doing no such thing.

Rather, a structural adjustment is taking place. Japan's prosperity priced some of its manufactures out of the world market, as had happened in the U.S. earlier, while the Asian "miracle" was spreading to more pools of low-wage labor.

China is the new giant. Its economic growth courtesy of partial liberation from communism is so spectacular that projecting it into the future would produce the same scare stories that clouded our vision of Japan.

While the 1997 incorporation of Hong Kong grows nearer and more contentious, the real significance of Hong Kong recedes. The British colony was the window China needed. This was exacerbated by the Communist regime's intense distrust of Shanghai, the Westernized boom city of the 1920s and '30s.

Even when the capitalist road spread in China, Shanghai was denied. But now it is being given a new infrastructure in preparation for playing its old role as the entry point for Western investment in China. When that is complete, Hong Kong will recede to a more regional role.

India is the next Asian miracle, its super growth hidden by ethnic strife and massive poverty. Hidden, its professional class is growing phenomenally. One of India's occupational specialties, based on strong mathematical tradition, is computer scientists who work for low wages.

The Korean drama is confounded by North Korea's nuclear ambition. Whether this is intended to deter aggression, to be bought off, or as dowry in a union with South Korea, Pyongyang has managed to catch President Clinton's attention. That is not easy for a poor country.

South Korea's rush to absorb the Communist North, inspired by Germany's example, has turned into a wary alarm at the probable cost, based on Germany's example. The U.S. has talked tough on the nuclear issue, but can hardly act tough against the wishes of South Korea, Japan and China.

President Clinton's great foreign policy successes last year were concluding the GATT negotiation and winning congressional approval of NAFTA. That leaves the question whether Congress is the foreign power he needs most.

GATT and NAFTA are Mr. Clinton's favorite foreign-policy issues. They mean jobs for Americans. They are really domestic economic issues. They are also Reagan and Bush initiatives that happened to mature on his watch.

The bad news in the former Yugoslavia seems likely to get worse. Aggression and genocide are being rewarded. They are models of behavior elsewhere in Europe and Central Asia. The surge of nationalism-fascism in Russia is an obstacle to any credible Western efforts to curb Serbia.

Middle East diplomacy appears fated to succeed. The Clinton administration has made an informed judgment that Syrian dictator Hafez el Assad has no option but to be persuaded into completing the circle of peace around Israel. Hence the Clinton flirtation with him.

General Aidid's success in Somalia at making a fool of Uncle Sam, however, inspired demagogues and tyrants everywhere, particularly in Haiti. President Clinton's difficulties with the Pentagon brass only encourages their scorn.

President Clinton clearly wants no war, and that also encourages provocations. Presidential advisers say that any military action should be chosen for political attractiveness, a definable mission and easy egress. But that is not the way the world ever works. Mr. Clinton will probably lead us to war when the provocations -- inspired by General Aidid's and President Milosevic's insolence -- become unbearable, when a straw breaks the camel's back.

The intelligence failure that humiliated the U.S. snatch squad sent after General Aidid will haunt this country for years. How much better to have caught him.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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