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Foreign Policy Firmness

AFTER 18 US soldiers were killed during the Somalia crisis last fall, the Clinton administration suddenly announced that problems in Haiti, Bosnia, North Korea, and Somalia were not primary concerns, but secondary concerns. The top priority was Russia, China, and nuclear proliferation. On these issues, the White House asserted, US policy was sound. Officials said the president's foreign policy should be judged on them, not Bosnia, Haiti, etc.

Since the fall much has happened in ``top priority'' areas. Some 25 percent of Russians elected a fascist to office. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher was rebuffed on a trip to China. Assurances by officials that nuclear proliferation is under control are under question; Seymour Hersh in the June Atlantic Monthly details a warning we have repeatedly issued - that organized crime in the former East bloc has risen to such a level that nuclear weapons there cannot be considered unobtainable.

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Still, Clinton should desist from the effort to redefine Haiti, Bosnia, and North Korea as secondary concerns. In actual day-to-day practice, these are the issues now defining new norms, rules, and levels of acceptable aggression on the world scene. Behaviors in Bosnia, Haiti, and North Korea are setting precedents. It is not too much to say that, in their own way, these ``secondary'' crises are to this age what the Spanish Civil War and Mussolini's aggression in Ethiopia were to a prior age. Certainly Russia and China, ``top priority'' nations, are closely watching Washington's approach. What they want to know is: How firmly does the West believe its own principles of human rights, democracy, and sovereignty?

The White House can still do what is right, be firm without being rash, in all these areas. The Haiti crisis has not been solved. The new Clinton policy to end forced repatriation is a stopgap. In the next 48 hours, the world may know the status of North Korea's nuclear program. If the UN inspection team is not given access, or finds many reactor fuel rods unaccounted for, the US must push for sanctions and put diplomacy with China in high gear.

Then there is Bosnia - the genocide in Europe that Europeans don't want to deal with. Everything about Bosnia seems stalled. The French want to withdraw troops. The only development in Geneva last week was the presence of the Russians. The Atlantic alliance is losing the shred of credibility gained during the NATO ultimatum on Sarajevo. The White House is capitulating in two areas it said it never would: It is trying to force a solution on the Bosnians, and it is helping to make new maps for them.

Improbably, now is the time for Clinton to get firm on Bosnia. After two years of terror and war crimes, the problem isn't going away. A strict and believable ultimatum can be imposed on all sides: no more fighting.

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