- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

One is thankful that it will soon be over. Even though the spectacle of President Clinton bumbling his way around the world is familiar by now, it is still cringe-making. Is it really too much to ask that one not feel acutely embarrassed by the president of the United States? Still, for those who like to count their blessings, at least Mr. Clinton's grand tour of Europe and Russia last week will be his last at our expense.
Mr. Clinton cannot exactly be called an innocent abroad, but he demonstrates an astonishing tin ear when it comes to international politics, as of course does his sidekick, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who behaves as though she's mother-in-law to the whole world. The best thing that can be said about the trip is that the president did not do material damage to the security of this country by committing himself to new arms control agreements with the Russians in terms of revisions to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. (He will be the first president in decades not to have any arms control agreement to his name.) It was not for want of trying. On every stop along the way, Mr. Clinton tried to sell his National Missile Defense (NMD) proposal, but no one was buying, and that was just as well. Sen. Jesse Helms had sworn up and down that if Mr. Clinton did bring home any such half-baked deal, he should not count on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to give it the time of day.
Instead, Mr. Clinton managed to illustrate his own ineptitude. He started out in Portugal, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union (EU). The stop was mostly noteworthy for tourism, which one presumes to be harmless enough. However, when it came to discussions of important trade issues between the EU and the United States, little headway was made. There were inconclusive talks of European Airbus subsidies and banana tariffs, and plans for a new round of World Trade Organization talks. But on the most important issue of all, the 15 percent U.S. tax break to its export companies, which the Europeans adamantly oppose, there was no progress whatever at which Mr. Clinton expressed his "puzzlement."
Perhaps that is why Mr. Clinton on the next stop of the trip, Aachen, Germany, took the extraordinary initiative of proposing the inclusion of Russia in the European Union. It may have slipped the president's mind that because the United States is not a member of the EU, Russian membership is not actually up to him. "No doors can be sealed shut to Russia," Mr. Clinton stated sweepingly with an eye to his final stop on the trip, Moscow. "Not NATO's, not the European Union's." The Europeans, who are having indigestion over ending up with as many as 30 smaller nations, including the former East Bloc nations, must have swallowed hard at the idea of bringing in the largest country in the world.
In Berlin, the Germans revealed themselves to have a hitherto unsuspected sense of irony by presenting Mr. Clinton with the Charlemagne prize for his contribution to European unity. Yes, Mr. Clinton has contributed all right, but mostly by demonstrating that the United States is an unreliable partner, which has spurred Europeans to try to forge a common security and defense policy. How this can be done without creating damaging splits in the NATO alliance has yet to be explained.
Then, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder actually managed to humiliate Mr. Clinton in public when, in the course of a dinner in East Berlin, he presented him with a Cuban cigar to much general amusement. "And thus I am holding one of Fidel's cigars in my hand that I would like to give to you," Mr. Schroeder said to the visibly irritated Mr. Clinton, for whom both Cuba and cigars are sore subjects. He got his own back the next day, though, by allowing a meeting with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl to drag on for so long that he was late for the inaugural dinner of the "Third Way" leaders' conference arranged by Mr. Schroeder. Actually, they don't call it the Third Way anymore "progressive governance" is supposedly the new catchword (though catchy it is certainly not).
But the crowning glory of Mr. Clinton's trip was the weekend visit to Moscow, during which he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered on the central mission of his trip, missile defense, by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leader of a bankrupt country with little but his wits to counter overwhelming American superiority in every field. This was something to behold. Mr. Putin adamantly declined any ABM revisions to allow Mr. Clinton's proposed land-based NMD and instead brilliantly proposed a missile defense of his own. In an interview with NBC News, Mr. Putin proposed to deal with threats from rogue states like North Korea by collaborating with the United States on a sea-based so-called "boost-phase defense" system that could shoot down North Korean missiles soon after launch, when they are slowest, hottest and still in one piece.
For the Russians and the Chinese, the beauty of this proposal is that it would do nothing to interfere with their nuclear capabilities. This is particularly true since, as former CIA Director James Woolsey writes in the current issue of National Review, the Russians in 1997 persuaded the Clinton administration to accept limits on U.S. theater missile defenses on Navy ships, which would make them useless against Russian missiles. (This revision of the ABM treaty has never been approved by the U.S. Senate and should not be.) During a trip to Italy this week, Mr. Putin even had the nerve to propose such a joint Russian-European missile defense.
It used to be that presidential summits were preceded by months of intense negotiations; the choreography was predetermined. Mr. Clinton changed all that or tried to. Still, it evidently takes more than the charms of a used-car salesman to negotiate arms control. And that is all for the better.
E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

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