Posted on October 18, 1993 in Washington Watch
During the past two weeks, the Clinton Administration has been hit hard by crises in Somalia and Haiti—namely increased U.S. casualties in Somalia and accelerated violence and a breakdown of the agreement to restore democracy to Haiti. Though these were crises in and of themselves, these events also were of concern to the Administration because of their timing.
The White House had already laid out an agenda for October. Elected to focus on the domestic issues Bush had ignored, Clinton had planned this fall to begin a major campaign to pass legislation on health care, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and an anti-crime bill that would address a problem of increasing concern to all Americans.
The Israel-PLO signing in Washington, an upheaval in Russia, a breakdown in the peace process in Bosnia and now Somalia and Haiti have dominated the press for more than a month—making it virtually impossible for the President to focus attention on his domestic initiatives.
As a result, the President’s speeches and planned events that have been staged around the U.S. to build momentum and support for his programs have been lost in the media. They have appeared as separate events and have gathered no momentum, while the coverage of foreign crises has gathered momentum in the media and the lion’s share of the coverage.
The external events have even affected what the President has been able to say about his programs. The White House design was for Clinton’s entire package of domestic initiatives to be called a “domestic security” program. In what was to have been a major address to define domestic issues, the President was forced, out of sensitivity to foreign policy concerns, to delete a key passage from his speech.
The address was meant to refocus the political debate on “domestic security” instead of “national security,” and the passage was to read:
“The challenge of our time is to give people the security they need to build lives of responsibility and achievement, the foundation of economic security, health security and personal security.”
However, in light of the U.S. servicemen killed and captured in Somalia, the White House felt it would be well-advised to drop that passage from the speech.
An additional reason behind the Administration’s discomfort is that these crises have all hit at a time when the White House is attempting to shape new foreign policy principles, during which time the Administration has been hit from all sides for a lack of specificity. In fairness, it is difficult for the Clinton team to shape a new theory of foreign policy that fits the post-Cold War world, while that “new” world is virtually unraveling in your face. And so, the Administration is being pressed to provide details while simultaneously learn how to respond to diverse crises, knowing that each new action de facto establishes policy.
While all of the crises of the past few weeks have to some degree or another been inherited by the Clinton Administration, this President is being held accountable for them, and his public standing is being hurt by them. Again, the timing is of concern to the Administration.
Although off to a rocky start during its first seven months, by September Clinton had rebounded in the polls. A September 26 CNN/Gallup poll gave the President a 56% positive rating and a 36% negative rating—a dramatic shift in public confidence. But by October 10 the numbers had shifted downward to 50% positive and 42% negative. And this negative shift is being driven almost completely by displeasure over foreign policy. The President is getting high marks for his health care proposal, but not for his handling of Somalia and Haiti.
Again, in September the public gave Clinton high grades for foreign policy (primarily in response to his handling of the crisis in Russia and the Middle East peace talks). Clinton’s September foreign policy ratings were 55% positive and 32% negative. The numbers now stand at 40% positive and 52% negative. The major factor in the shift is perceptions about Clinton’s handling of policy in Somalia (32% positive-59% negative) and Haiti (27% positive and 67% negative).
Ratings and public confidence levels are important because they determine both the ability of the President to press Congress to support his more controversial initiatives and his ability to keep the press with him on issues of public importance.
The press, operating in their usual mode (like “sharks smelling blood in the water”) have taken an aggressive and hostile attitude toward Clinton.
The President had not been doing well with the national television media anyway, but the elite network reporters have been extremely harsh during the past few weeks. Calling Somalia a “quagmire” (an unmistakable reference to Vietnam), a barrage of negatives to describe the Clinton foreign policy team have not helped them shape public attitudes in favor of the President or his policies.
In fact, having inherited all these crises from the failures of U.S. policy in the past, one must appreciate the difficulties Clinton is facing in addressing each of them.
Somalia was a gift from George Bush. From the beginning it was a compassionate but ill-defined venture. As Clinton responded to the dual pressures to withdraw the U.S. and enforce the UN’s role, the direction of the mission changed. All that Clinton has done in the past two weeks is an attempt to restore the original purpose of the U.S. involvement in Somalia and to press for a definite date for full U.S. withdrawal.
In Haiti, the Clinton approach has been to press for a restoration of democracy in a country that has long been a victim of either negative U.S. meddling or, more recently, U.S. neglect.
In both cases, Clinton is burdened by a perennial factor limiting U.S. options, since there does not appear to be any public tolerance for any loss of U.S. lives. Polls show that U.S. public opinion strongly opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in both countries by a margin of 2-1.
Interestingly, the only circumstances in which the public would agree to accept U.S. troops in either country would be in response to what one might term a U.S.-centric concern. This view says “Yes” to sending troops to Haiti if it will stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Haiti to the U.S., and “Yes” to troops in Somalia to protect U.S. lives that are in danger in that country. The difficulty in shaping U.S. policy in the face of such a public attitude came through this week in the most interesting of comments by one of Haiti’s strongest supporters in the U.S. Congress.
Congressman Charles Rangel (Democrat from New York) has long supported U.S. involvement to restore exiled President Aristide and democracy to Haiti. He was critical of President Bush’s failure to deal with the issue and he pushed hard to force Clinton’s hand. In response to recent violence in Haiti, and aware of the lack of public support for direct U.S. military involvement, Rangel made a proposal that the UN should send troops to Haiti to restore democracy and oust the military and police junta now ruling the country. But he added the bizarre caveat that the UN troops should include no American forces!
Faced by Republican critics who conveniently forget that Bush first committed the U.S. to Somalia, and Democratic critics who want no part of U.S. military involvement in Haiti, and a media that acts as is was elected to make foreign policy, Clinton is struggling both to shape an adequate U.S. response which protects U.S. leadership while also protecting his domestic agenda—which he knows was the reason he was elected in the first place.
In a way, it all seems somehow appropriate. Candidate Clinton was full of boundless energy and detailed answers on every policy question; he sketched a huge agenda for what he would do if elected; and he handled the press corps with mastery. Now, entering the tenth month of his term, he has his hands as full of important foreign policy as an president could handle, a number of large-scale domestic programs which need shepherding if they are to survive, and a press corps that it out of his control, President Clinton is facing what appears to be a true test of his abilities.***
A Final Note
While the rest of the world has its obsession with soccer (football), the U.S. refuses to surrender to any other passion than baseball. Though there are now two Canadian teams in baseball’s Major Leagues (and most of their players are U.S. citizens), the sport’s championships are still called the World Series.
This year’s World Series will be intense. The National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies will go up against the American League Champion Toronto Blue Jays. It will be an interesting case study in styles.
The impressive Blue Jays have been one of the top teams in the American League for years, and five of the top nine players in this year’s all-star game were from the Toronto team. This team plays every facet of the game well, dominates its opponents when it is focused and is very intimidating, much like Germany was during the last World Cup.
The Philadelphia Phillies, by contrast, finished last in the National League last year. This is only their fifth world series in 110 years. Their players are, as a group, clearly the messiest, long-haired group in the Major Leagues and many are overweight. As a team, they have several weaknesses, and their major strength is an extreme loyalty and confidence in one another. They are like resemble only one other team in sports, a baseball team from St. Louis that played in 1934.
Why do I write about baseball in a political column?
Because it gives me an opportunity to introduce a political note about baseball. The Clinton Administration is full or current and former Little League baseball coaches. Among the members of the Clinton team who have devoted hours each week to teaching young people to love this game are Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger (both are familiar names to regular readers of this column), as well as Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary John Podesta and Vice President Gore’s Chief of Staff Roy Neel.
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