WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton struggles to put the Monica Lewinsky affair behind him, the United States is being tested by a larger number of foreign policy crises than at perhaps any other time in the 5 1/2 -year Clinton administration.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has blocked intrusive inspections of his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, raising the prospect that the United Nations' seven-year effort to disarm Iraq will prove futile.
North Korea threatens to restart its processing of nuclear-weapons fuel. More menacing still, it has begun an underground construction project that some reports suggest could eventually produce nuclear weapons.
In the volatile Serbian province of Kosovo, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is suppressing an ethnic Albanian revolt, uprooting tens of thousands of civilians and raising the specter of a regional war.
And in the aftermath of twin terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the threat of more anti-American violence has forced a drastic reduction in the U.S. presence in several African countries and in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process remains stalled, and the Asian financial crisis threatens the economic stability of much of the world and could eventually erode U.S. prosperity.
In telling Americans on Monday night that it was time to "move on" beyond the scandal, Clinton noted that the nation had "real security matters to face."
The impression that the White House is unable to concentrate on world problems is "widespread," said James Schlesinger, a Cabinet secretary in the Ford and Carter administrations who is now an adviser to Lehman Bros.
"I don't know that you can separate [Clinton's] personal problems from the international stature of the United States," Schlesinger said. "Everyone will take our temperature."
An administration spokeswoman countered: "Business is normal here, as far as the way we keep the president informed." Clinton has been actively involved in the aftermath to the African and Northern Ireland bombings, she said.
The United States responded swiftly to the bombings in east Africa, linking suspects to a terror network controlled by a wealthy Saudi exile holed up in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden.
But the U.S. reaction to the other crises has been anything but forceful, inviting criticism of a flagging leadership and a White House unable to concentrate on pressing problems.
"There is diversion, and it has resulted in a vacuum in American leadership in the conduct of world affairs," says Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. Congress might step in to fill the void, McCain warned, as it did in limiting the U.S. role in Indochina during the Nixon presidency's Watergate scandal.
But Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, rejected the notion that Clinton was paralyzed. He also said he doesn't buy the theory that America's adversaries have seized on a moment of presidential distraction to threaten the United States.
Nevertheless, the United States is facing an unusual number of crises that require focused presidential attention.
Iraq halts cooperation
As Iraq halted cooperation with the United Nations early this month, the United States retreated from previous threats of military action. At the same time, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright persuaded the chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, postpone inspections of suspected weapons sites.
The U.S. purpose, Albright and others said, was to avoid any provocation for which Iraq's supporters on the Security Council could blame the inspectors and instead to keep the Security Council's attention fixed on Iraqi defiance.
But two weeks later, the Security Council has failed to apply new pressure on Iraq. And Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whom the White House wanted to persuade Iraq to back down, has yet to get personally involved.
The administration is relying primarily on the threat of a permanent, tightly enforced economic embargo to get Hussein to cooperate. The result is a "standoff," says a senior administration official, who concedes it will be "very hard" to uncover Iraq's chemical and biological weapons secrets.
David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, sees in the administration's response an overriding attitude of "let's just avoid a crisis."
"You will see a large number of states start to massively ignore sanctions," Kay said.
Hamilton, a stalwart administration supporter, said military action against Iraq remains "a real possibility" because Hussein never yields unless threatened with force.
North Korea 'brinkmanship'
Even within the administration, there is irritation with how the White House and State Department have handled policy toward North Korea, which has been threatening for a month to flout a 1994 agreement to freeze its development of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang complains that the United States has failed to keep its commitment to supply heavy oil, which was meant to meet the country's fuel needs until a safe new nuclear reactor is completed.
Satellite photos reveal a new underground construction site, raising fears that Pyongyang might be building a nuclear weapons facility. So far, the administration says it lacks enough evidence that North Korea is violating the accord.
The North Koreans "know brinkmanship works," said William Taylor, senior vice president for international security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Fighting in Kosovo
While NATO has mapped various contingency plans to use force against Serbia's army, the United States has made clear that it won't be dragged into a war on the side of the ethnic Albanian rebels seeking full independence for their province of Kosovo.
This attitude has allowed Milosevic wide latitude to suppress the rebellion and uproot civilians in a replay of the "ethnic cleansing" for which Serbs became notorious in neighboring Bosnia. But Milosevic hardly needed the current Clinton scandal to perceive a U.S. lack of resolve, says Warren Bass, an associate editor of Foreign Affairs and author of a new article on the conflict.
World financial crises
The administration has been widely seen as having assumed a more forceful role in response to the Asian and Russian financial crises, having pushed for International Monetary Fund loan packages worth tens of billions of dollars.
So far, however, neither crisis has been relieved; Russia announced just this week a risky de facto devaluation of the ruble. And the administration has been unable to get Congress to replenish the IMF.
A collapse of Russia's economy poses a frightening prospect, given the instability that could ensue in a nation that still possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. Asia's crisis hasn't yet affected America's robust economy.
But in the long run, Schlesinger warns, the Asia crisis is bound to spill over into the United States.
Pub Date: 8/20/98