Doubts cast on foreign policy New team basking in acclaim, but lacking direction, analysts say


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has picked a national security team of seasoned insiders, skilled at working the corridors of power at home and abroad. But as praise cascaded on the new appointees, even from many Clinton critics, a key question remained: To what purpose?

The problem, analysts say, is that the president hasn't enunciated his second-term foreign policy priorities, leaving his new team basking in acclaim, but -- at least for the moment -- lacking direction.

And neither Madeleine K. Albright, Clinton's choice for secretary of state, nor Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, whom the president tapped to head the Pentagon, is a recognized strategic thinker.

This has raised doubts among foreign policy specialists that the new team can bring coherence and a clear set of priorities to a world where new threats emerge almost daily, old alliances are under strain and nations are economically interdependent as never before.

"Senator Cohen is a new member of the team, but the others have shared, tolerated and articulated the president's very cautious and limited foreign policy agenda for the past four years," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican and former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Noting that three key nominees -- Albright, CIA Director- designate Anthony Lake and Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's choice for national security adviser -- were with the administration from the start, Lugar added: "President Clinton has been surrounded by these same high-powered and very bright people. And the president has not placed a strategic imprint on foreign policy, nor has he been sure-footed in most tactical exercises."

The absence of a strategic vision leaves the administration dealing separately with foreign policy objectives, such as expanding free trade, encouraging democracy and fighting terrorism, without a global framework or a unifying theme to unite Congress and the American people.

This stands in contrast with some top foreign policy aides in previous administrations. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, pursued the doctrine of containing Soviet communism. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Richard Nixon, modified the doctrine, seeking to divide the Communist world by advocating both an opening to China and detente with Russia.

'Pick out trouble sports'

But the lack of a Kissinger-type global thinker nowadays may not be such a handicap, argues Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the powerful foreign operations appropriations subcommittee.

"Who has a vision in the post-Cold War period? Almost inevitably it is, to some degree, ad hoc. You pick out trouble spots and go to work on them," he said.

Clinton's new lieutenants face a formidable array of trouble spots as they try to craft policy toward an increasingly assertive China, extricate U.S. troops from the Balkans, expand the NATO alliance, continue removing trade barriers and deal with a constantly turbulent Middle East.

Taken together, particularly with Republican Cohen on board, the team offers the promise of forging a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, particularly on getting the GOP-led Congress to increase spending to maintain ties with other nations.

Budget cuts over the past few years have reduced foreign aid to the developing world, forced the shutdown of 30 U.S. missions overseas, delayed modernization of equipment and put the United States in arrears to international organizations, including the United Nations and World Bank.

Apart from major policy questions, the United States is hampered "just in the basic stuff of doing the job, keeping the embassies from falling apart and having people knowledgeable in the key languages," McConnell said.

Boosted standing on Hill

Albright, a former congressional aide who uses the telephone assiduously to maintain ties on Capitol Hill, boosted her standing with Congress by leading the campaign to replace U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, even at the risk of alienating her colleagues in New York.

Boutros-Ghali has long been a target of members of Congress who charge that he has been too slow to cut waste at the United Nations and streamline its activities.

Albright is well-positioned to lead the fight for more money both inside the administration and on Capitol Hill, McConnell said.

Defense strategy

Even the Pentagon budget is out of whack, said Charles William Maynes, editor of the journal Foreign Policy. "We have a defense strategy that current funding will not support, with astronomical costs of replacement of weapons." Current strategy calls for the United States to be able to project military power around the globe and stresses high-technology weapons designed to reduce American casualties.

"Either Cohen persuades Congress and the administration to give a lot more money, or he has to revise the defense strategy," Maynes said.

As envoy to the United Nations, Albright worked to improve relations with the developing world. And in an administration that critics say has failed to live up to its rhetoric on human rights, she brings the commitment of someone whose family was forced to flee both the Nazis and the Communists in Czechoslovakia.

But her expertise is Europe. This will help in preparing the Eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former Warsaw Pact countries, analysts say. And she may harbor more skepticism about Russia than others in the administration.

But some observers say she's unlikely to devote nearly as much attention to the Middle East as did Warren Christopher, the outgoing secretary of state, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy trying to forge an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

With the peace process faltering and U.S.-Israeli relations strained over the issue of Jewish settlements, "The question there will be, how to keep some stability, how to keep [the region] from spiraling in a negative way," said Peter Rodman, a veteran national security aide in Republican administrations.

Because of her focus on Europe, Albright will also be on unfamiliar ground in dealing with Asia at a time when a rapidly growing China periodically threatens Taiwan and seeks to project military power farther into the Pacific.

As a newcomer to the administration, the independent-minded Cohen will be the Republican wild card in a mix of personalities that has worked together for years.

Brokering the disputes that inevitably arise between State and Defense -- and possibly the intelligence agencies -- will fall to Berger, the only member of the team who can expect to see Clinton daily.

A soft-spoken trade lawyer who has held the president's trust since the 1992 presidential campaign, Berger has a reputation ZTC inside the administration of being a classic honest broker -- "someone who doesn't tilt the options," Maynes said.

Berger played a key role in the administration's initially ragged policy toward Haiti and has been an important player in promoting economic sanctions against Iran. If he has a foreign policy vision, however, it's not well-known.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad