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Foreign Policy Matters

PRESIDENT Clinton's recent press conference on foreign affairs was a response to attacks that the White House lacks a coherent foreign policy. Yet the president is still in a reactive mode on foreign affairs. Last week it was Haiti. Next week it may be the Dole-Lieberman bill to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians.

The problem is not communication. Rather, the White House has not decided what principles it will back with power to ensure credibility. The president has a domestic agenda of health care, infrastructure, and crime. Yet the uncertainty felt around the world today, the nascent nationalism and fascism, the corruption and crime that have replaced the superpower standoff, need attention by the world's leading power.

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Withdrawing from such issues might be fine if the US were a tiny powerless country. But despite the trauma Mr. Clinton's generation feels because of an unwise US involvement in Vietnam, the US did bring order to the chaos in Europe and Asia after World War II, and in a post-Soviet nuclear age it is much looked to.

Can shared international ideals - human rights, democracy, Helsinki accords, the UN charter - survive?

Such ideals are demeaned when Serbs force United Nations official Yasushi Akashi to allow their tanks in a UN exclusion zone, violating a NATO ultimatum. Or when Haiti's dictator breaks a treaty brokered last summer by the US. Or when North Korea again refuses to allow UN nuclear inspections. Or when Beijing calls the White House bluff on most-favored-nation status over Chinese human rights abuses. Or when the US says nothing to Russia about use of force in three neighboring states and its breach of the Helsinki Charter in the Baltics.

No one case is of itself irreversibly damaging. But troubling patterns and precedents are forming.

Clinton must review his house: Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke notes that the White House has left the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency without a staff. Funding of Radio Free Europe, the most effective policy tool in Europe, is being cut. Clinton verbally supports lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnians, but the State Department has never conducted a study of the legal basis for the original embargo decision.

Basic assumptions need checking: How strong are anti-Western, anti-democratic forces in the Orthodox and Islamic worlds? The United States has, for example, said that to help Boris Yeltsin at home, it will not take sides in Bosnia. Yet as an unofficial State Department paper asks: ``How is it, exactly, that capitulating to Serb fascists and appeasing Russian proto-fascists will strengthen Russian democrats?''

Accepted norms are threatened not by ideology - but by cheap fascism, criminality, and nationalist rhetoric. US leadership by example is needed.

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