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Dangers of US Inaction Abroad

Despite strikes against sites in Afghanistan and Sudan, many experts worry about a pattern of inaction elsewhere.

When it comes to fighting terrorism, the United States put its money where its mouth is with cruise missiles, swiftly making good on vows to punish those allegedly behind the US embassy bombings in East Africa. But on challenges in the Middle East and the Balkans that are at least as critical to US security and global stability - some say more so - the Clinton administration's actions have failed to match its tough talk.

Many experts agree the administration may have compelling reasons for the gaps between its rhetoric and US policies on Iraq, Yugoslavia's war-wracked Kosovo Province, and the Middle East peace process. But they warn that by leveling threats on which it has failed to act, the administration may be eroding its credibility and authority abroad, encouraging new challenges to American global interests.

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These could include North Korea's apparent moves to resurrect its illicit nuclear-weapons program, a source of serious tensions that in 1994 raised the specter of a second Korean war. "A lot of what this comes down to is prestige, credibility, and resolve," says Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a leading foreign-policy journal. "You have this sense of a very casual use of threats and promises from this administration without any sense that there will be a day when there will be a reckoning."

Repeatedly failing to act "weakens your ability to use threats ... when you really need to use them, because threats are a major tool in the diplomatic tool box," says Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official. "Your own policy becomes less effective and ... others are going to challenge you more rapidly ... and that in the light of the Monica Lewinsky scandal becomes a threat to the nation's security."

A 'second Bosnia?'

In Kosovo, senior US officials earlier this year vowed not to allow a "second Bosnia" following massacres of women and children in a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels fighting to end years of repression by Belgrade. When confronted by a dearth of international support and Russian opposition in the United Nations to military intervention, these officials even raised the possibility of unilateral NATO action.

But Washington's threats have all but evaporated. Pressed by European allies opposed to an independent Kosovo, the US is now advocating peace talks. This despite the fact that Serbian forces are pursuing a new onslaught, adding to a flood of some 240,000 ethnic Albanian refugees, and raising the danger that Macedonia and Albania may be drawn into the conflict. "Clearly, [administration officials] got out ahead of what they were prepared to do in Kosovo," says Mort Abramowitz, a former senior State Department official now with the International Crisis Group, a private research institute in Washington. "There has been a pattern of weakness, and the results we will have to see."

Similarly, administration officials vowed to respond promptly with force if Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein flouted an accord on a resumption of UN arms inspections. But Iraq's decision this month to again block the inspections has seen the US pull back from its pledge, raising concerns that Baghdad is free to resume its efforts to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright contends that "all options" are open and that Iraq will remain under UN sanctions until it complies with the inspections. But her efforts to stop the UN monitors from challenging the Iraqis have fueled an impression of weakness, prompting a bipartisan outcry and the convening of a congressional inquiry.

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Softening on Israel

Also in the Middle East, US officials in May threatened to take a hard line with Israel's right-wing government over its refusal to accept a US compromise plan. The plan was aimed at breaking the deadlock in moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But under pressure from Congress and American Jewish leaders, President Clinton quickly and quietly abandoned that approach in what appears to be a humiliating betrayal of Ms. Albright, its leading advocate.

US officials and Clinton supporters insist that US strategic goals remain the same in Iraq, the Middle East peace process, and Kosovo. The White House, they say, has been forced to make tactical mid-course corrections in policies because of little or no international or domestic support for its stated intentions. "The administration is adapting its strategy ... to circumstances which are more realistic in their appraisal," says a Western European diplomat. At the same time, he concedes that "maybe there was an overstatement" by the administration in what it has been prepared to do in some parts of the world.

But to critics, the inconsistencies between what the administration says and does smack of retreats by the world's leading power and a president mired in personal crisis, unable to devote the energy and time required to deal with global challenges. "Yes, terrorism is a danger that demands sustained presidential attention and purposeful strategy to counteract it. So do the many other threats to American security that have festered from this administration's negligence," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona in the GOP response to Mr. Clinton's radio address last weekend.

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