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Scandal Prompts European Concerns
Officials, Commentators Fear U.S. Leadership in Iraq Crisis, Mideast Peace Talks Could Falter

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 27, 1998; Page A10

BERLIN, Jan. 26—European commentators expressed concern today that U.S. leadership could falter in coping with the confrontation with Iraq, Asia's financial meltdown, the stalled Middle East peace talks and other foreign policy issues as a result of the White House sex scandal.

Newspapers across the continent were almost unanimous in their assessment that the United States is becoming so distracted by the allegations against the president that attention to foreign affairs is bound to suffer. They also claimed the personal embarrassment over an alleged affair with a former White House intern will inflict a lasting blow to President Clinton's stature at home and abroad.

"Clinton might manage to save his job, but politically he's finished already," declared Germany's liberal Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. "He can forget his ambitious domestic policy projects. . . . As a weak president at home, he will also lose influence abroad."

While most allied governments sought to project a public image of business as usual in their dealings with Washington, several officials privately questioned whether Clinton can ever restore his authority as leader of the world's only superpower. "He's still president of the United States, but he's so badly wounded he now evokes pity rather than awe," a senior European diplomat said.

When Asian financial and stock markets hit the skids last year, the United States took the lead in organizing a rescue operation through the International Monetary Fund. But Clinton's problems have raised new apprehensions in Europe that U.S. leadership on the issue may start to flag because the president's clout could diminish so much he may not be able to persuade Congress to authorize enough money to deal with the region's huge debts.

European Union officials said France, Britain and Germany have decided to step up their involvement, not least because European banks and exporters are so heavily exposed to the Asian turmoil. Germany is sending two delegations to Asia to assess what else can be done to contain the crisis, while Britain is preparing to host a special meeting of Group of Seven finance officials to discuss future contingencies next month.

At the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, officials insist the dominant role played by the United States in the Bosnia peacekeeping mission and preparations for a potential military strike against Iraq -- if Baghdad persists in defying United Nations inspections of weapons sites -- have not been affected by Clinton's troubles.

"If Saddam Hussein thinks he can exploit the president's difficulties, he will be making yet another serious miscalculation," said a senior NATO diplomat. "Even a weakened American leader could muster all the support he needs from Congress and the American people to carry out a military strike if Iraq keeps stonewalling on the inspections."

Some foreign leaders, apparently fearful that Clinton's troubles could disturb their own diplomatic goals as well as the health of their markets, have rushed to his defense. "President Clinton is carrying out all his duties, which are very distinguished," French President Jacques Chirac told a news conference in New Delhi. "His authority cannot be challenged, and it is unchallenged from my point of view."

But Chirac expressed alarm about the perilous state of relations between Israelis and Palestinians and declared that France's "deep disappointment and deep concern" was shared by other members of the 15-nation European Union.

"We are very worried, very worried about this peace process," Chirac said. "The new Israeli government has not wanted to continue along the same road as its predecessors."

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, diplomats acknowledged that Clinton's personal crisis was a major point of discussion today during informal corridor chats. But in their public comments, ministers sought to downplay the impact of Clinton's difficulties on global hot spots.

Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo discounted the "macho theory" that Clinton might seek to deflect attention from his troubles by launching an early strike against Iraq. "There is absolutely no reason to think that," he told reporters. "You cannot link these two issues."

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said they are hopeful that Clinton's problems will not disrupt diplomatic efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. But other European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is a perception that a distracted or weakened American president would no longer be willing or able to impose himself as a mediator to extract the concessions needed to move it forward.

"Last week Clinton demonstrated he could not compel the Israelis to meet their responsibilities for a further military pullback from the West Bank," observed a senior European specialist in Middle East affairs. "This week he is even less capable, if only because people in his own party, not to mention the Republicans, will not support a policy of greater pressure on Israel."

What worries many European analysts is that the scandal could well just dribble along, preoccupying Clinton and interrupting the nation's foreign policy agenda, if only because his opponents believe they might find tactical political gains in seeing that happen.

"In a year of congressional mid-term elections," an Irish Times editorial said, "it could suit the Republicans better to have a scandal-stricken President staggering on and doing huge damage to Democrats up for reelections, than to have them rallying under President Al Gore with the Clinton scandals just a bad memory."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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