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Clinton Foreign Policy: From Rhetoric to Reality

THE Clinton administration this week is in the difficult position of watching while two of its foreign policy priorities clash: support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and a desire to tighten economic sanctions against Serbia.

The United States has been pushing the United Nations Security Council for weeks to vote for a tighter economic noose around Serbia and its ally Montenegro. But Russia, one of five permanent Security Council members, is reluctant to press harder on Serbia, its traditional ally.

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Now, at Mr. Yeltsin's request, the US has agreed to support a two-week delay before the vote. Thus action wouldn't occur until after the key April 25 Russian referendum on Yeltsin's rule. As of this writing nonaligned members of the 15-nation Security Council were objecting to the delay and pushing for a vote this week.

Yeltsin will eventually go along with tighter sanctions, according to US officials. It's just that for the moment he can't appear to be caving in to Western pressure, or he'll lose conservative Russian votes. After April 25 "the Russians will cooperate ... to tighten sanctions" if Bosnian Serbs haven't ceased attacks, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on April 12.

The difficulty of the Bosnian situation - in which progress is measured in inches - has undoubtedly shown President Clinton that sometimes foreign policy is even more difficult than domestic health-care policy. On a number of issues, brave campaign talk has given way to more cautious steps once Mr. Clinton assumed power.

Bosnia is one such area. Before the election Clinton implied he would move more forcefully to halt Serb aggression in the Balkans. Yet the realities of European reluctance, plus the Pentagon's desire to go in with nothing less than massive force, have stymied any kind of large, US-led international rescue operation.

Clinton officials now call Bosnia a problem the US alone can't solve. Yet they have taken a step the Bush administration never managed - enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

THE NATO warplanes now patrolling the Bosnian skies represent a historic move of sorts. Never before has the North Atlantic alliance formally taken military action outside its own area. After months of talk, the planes represent the first concrete use of real force in the Balkans by the West.

Whether the enforcement will make any difference in the war is another matter. US military officials have long said the action would mean nothing, in military terms.

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Clinton policies for the region remain in flux. A team of experts sent by the White House to the Balkans has recommended more forceful action, perhaps including "safe havens" protected by Western armies. White House officials continue to artfully avoid saying what the president thinks of this suggestion.

The foreign policy area where President Clinton most differs from candidate Clinton is Haiti. During the campaign, Clinton hit the Bush administration's policy of intercepting Haitian refugees at sea, and returning them to Haiti, as inhumane. Yet now the Clinton White House has even gone to court to argue that it should be allowed to continue the practice.

One reason for the switch is undoubtedly the chastening reality of power that accompanies the Oval Office. Clinton also still does obviously make domestic policy his first priority, and leans heavily on Secretary of State Warren Christopher for advice.

Clinton "would generally prefer to try and avoid getting caught in foreign policy problems," judges former Carter national security advisor Zbigniew Brezezinski.

Clinton officials argue that they have helped the human rights situation in Haiti, as they have pushed for international monitors to be allowed on the island, pending a settlement of the standoff between ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his opponents.

Haiti is an issue Clinton remains engaged with, insists Mr. Christopher. Several weeks ago, while being briefed on Haiti prior to a meeting with Fr. Aristide, Clinton pounded the table and complained that US officials weren't trying hard enough.

"It was a stern meeting," Christopher said at a recent Monitor breakfast with reporters. "He was distressed. He let us know he expected more progress."

The secretary of State said that Clinton has one of the primary qualities needed for a good statesman - the ability to connect on a personal level with an array of foreign leaders. This has been no challenge for a president who sometimes seems a one-man friendship machine.

"You have to have a range to get along with many different personalities," Christopher noted.

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