Posted on March 11, 1996 in Washington Watch

As the remaining Republican presidential candidates turn the focus of their campaigns to domestic economic issues, the Clinton Administration is facing a series of dramatic international crises.

In rapid succession, terrorist bombings in London and Israel, a crisis with Cuba, and provocative anti-Taiwan actions by China are testing the Administration’s ability to demonstrate American leadership and resolve in many places at the same time.

In an election year when President Clinton has been proud to point to his accomplishments in foreign affairs, it will be imperative for the Administration to meet these international challenges directly and effectively.

Democrats point out that the decision to send troops to Bosnia, despite strong Republican opposition and a lack of public support, has nevertheless win the President high grades in recent polling. From a low of 39%, the public’s approval rating of Clinton’s handling of foreign policy has jumped into the mid-50% range. Despite differences over Bosnia, public opinion appears to support the President’s determination and decisiveness.

While he will only be generally challenged on China, the issues of Ireland, Cuba and the Arab-Israeli conflict will be hot topics in this election year. The presence of strong domestic voter groups who hold deep concerns about each of these policy areas means that Republicans will attempt to challenge Clinton’s every move. Pandering for votes is an American electoral pastime.

For example, the Administration took a very strong stand in response to Cuba’s downing of two civilian planes flown by Cuban exiles living in the U.S.. Some in the Administration felt that the action was too strong and would create tension between the U.S. and its Central American and European allies. Despite this, leading Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, while campaigning among the powerful Cuban American community in Florida, demanded that the Clinton Justice Department go even farther. Dole’s call to seek the arrest and prosecution of the Cuban pilots who shot down the planes two weeks ago may win him some votes from emotional and angry Cuban Americans, but his demand is almost impossible to implement and would have dangerous implications if tried.

Similarly, Clinton’s decision to grant a visa to Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army) leader Gerry Adams for a visit to the U.S. has been criticized by some Republicans as surrendering to IRA terror. In fact the Adam’s visa has severe limitations: he can only visit a small list of cities, cannot meet with Administration officials and is not permitted to raise funds. The Administration has stated that the visa was granted to maintain at least a public U.S. dialogue with and support for an inclusive Northern Ireland peace process. In all probability, the desires of millions of Irish American voters also factored into the decision.

Obviously, the most dramatic of the challenges to the Administration’s foreign policy successes came in the wake of the terror bombings that killed dozens of Israelis over the past two weeks.

This Administration, like its predecessor, has spent considerable energy and political capital in forging a Middle East peace process. Not only has the Secretary of State made eighteen trips to the Middle East, but the President and Vice President have each made two such trips. And the President has put the prestige of the White House on the line with three separate signing ceremonies. In addition, the Administration has led the international effort to secure economic assistance for the Palestine National Authority (PNA), and has led the effort to convene the first two Middle East economic summits.

With the successful completion of the Palestinian elections, the next hurdle to be overcome to move the peace process forward is the resolution of the elections in Israel. It is no secret that for negotiations to continue on track with Syria, Lebanon and the PNA, it is important for Israelis to feel secure under the Labor party leadership that made possible the first steps in this process.

The bombs that killed in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv have not only threatened the survival of the Peres government, but they have also directly challenged an enterprise in which the Clinton Administration has invested much. It is for his reason that the Administration moved forward with such determination.

With the majority of editorials in major U.S. papers both criticizing the Palestinian leadership and questioning the peace process itself, and with Republicans in Congress (with Bob Dole’s support) calling for an end to U.S. financial assistance to the PNA, the Administration has decided to act to reinforce its commitment to the principles that are the foundation of the peace process.

In this highly emotional climate, appeals by critics of the peace process to the U.S. Jewish community calling for stepping back from peace, mirror the sudden shift in mood in Israel itself.

At this point the actions of the Administration have been designed to restore confidence in the process by addressing Israel’s security concerns, in order to bolster the confidence of Israeli and American Jewish public opinion that peace with the Palestinians is desirable and necessary. The decision to send hi-tech anti-terror equipment and U.S. counterterrorism experts to Israel and the Palestinians is a part of this effort.

What is important is the Administration’s resolve to maintain a level of balance in its policy. Recognizing that peace requires partners, the Administration has made it clear that as it supports the Peres’ government’s efforts, it will not engage in anti-Palestinian rhetoric or Arafat-bashing. Indeed, in the first few days of its response to the bombings, President Clinton indicated his feeling that President Arafat was taking measures to deal with extremism, and even went so as to declare the extremist who killed Israeli Prime Minister Rabin with the extremists who killed Israelis citizens equal in their desire to kill peace.

At the same time that the Administration is opposing Congressional efforts to cut off financial assistance to the PNA, it is actively seeking to find increased international support to aid Palestinians affected by Israel’s closure of the West Bank and Gaza.

If there is one area where the Administration has been too timid, it is in failing to publicly criticize Israeli actions of collective punishment against the Palestinian population – actions that will only make the peace process more difficult and erode Palestinian confidence in that process. But this is an Administration that has traditionally been opposed to public criticism of Israel, and with Israeli society in trauma and Peres in danger of being defeated by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S. has not wanted to take steps that it feels might undercut the Labor government. This is a decision the U.S. may later regret.

What the Administration has done, however, is engage in an active outreach effort to American Jews, Arab Americans and to Arabs and Israelis in an effort to build strong support for and renewed commitment to the peace process.

The unprecedented decision to have a live message broadcast from the Administration to a Saudi conference on “Islam and the West” was a part of the Administration’s outreach to Muslims and Arabs. Vice President Al Gore’s speech at the Washington Islamic Center, President Clinton’s remarkable comments on Islam before the Jordanian Parliament in 1994, and Mrs. Clinton’s recent initiative to host the first ever Eid dinner for American Muslims at the White House, were similarly a part of this continuing effort to make clear the Administration’s respect for Islam and the fact that its opposition to extremist groups who use violence to achieve their aims has nothing to do with a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

The final piece in the Administration’s effort to shore up the peace process will be the convening of an anti-terrorism summit in Egypt later this week with the leaders of the Middle East “peace team.”

These are all risky ventures in an emotion-filled political climate. But they are initiatives that the President is committed to carry out in order to salvage, in the midst of an election year, foreign policy accomplishments that he feels must be defended for reasons of both good policy and good politics.

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