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Foreign Policy Driven by Distraction

By Sally Quinn
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page C01

opinion
President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair strode to the lecterns in the East Room on Friday for the formal joint White House press conference that is standard for foreign leaders on significant visits. Their opening statements conveyed the gravity of the issues they had been discussing, particularly whether to take action against Iraq. Then came the first question: Would the president say "here and now" the exact nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Soon, what was supposed to be a firm, united, Anglo-American front against Saddam Hussein deteriorated into a free-for-all about the president's character, integrity and personal life.

This was not the first time in the past few weeks that an important foreign official, at a crucial time, had to contend with Monica, Linda, Gennifer, Paula, Kathleen and Ken. When the story broke of Clinton's alleged relationship with Lewinsky on Jan. 21, it nearly rendered moot the separate visits of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat's photo session with the president bordered on farce. As Arafat stood by, reporters bombarded Clinton with questions about matters most undiplomatic.

It was deeply humiliating to Arafat and, in the

view of some Palestinian officials, at least temporarily damaging to the Middle East peace process. For Arafat, "it must have been very embarrassing," said Hanan Ashrawi, Arafat's confidante and Palestinian minister of higher education and research. "He has a very strict moral code. . . . We do not discuss these things publicly. It is not an issue that should dominate."

After Arafat returned from Washington, Ashrawi attended a meeting with the Palestinian leader. Arafat was concerned about the distraction, says Ashrawi. "He did allude to the fact that though they were there to talk politics, he felt that President Clinton had to deal with this issue and not foreign policy. He feels things should be given the weight they deserve," she said.

The Israelis also went home unhappy. The president had two White House meetings with Netanyahu on Tuesday, Jan. 20 -- 90 minutes in the morning in the Oval Office and then several hours more, beginning at 9:45 p.m. in the Treaty Room upstairs. According to one Israeli official, the morning meeting was business as usual and the president was totally focused. The evening meeting, however, was another matter -- occurring just as The Washington Post and other news organizations were about to release the first stories about the Clinton-Lewinsky allegations.

The Israeli official said that Netanyahu, watching Clinton in the evening session, felt that something strange was going on; the president was considerably less focused, not on top of the agenda. Netanyahu wondered at first if Clinton had a health problem. According to the Israeli official, Clinton went in and out of the meeting several times -- a claim roundly disputed by White House national security adviser Samuel R. Berger, who told me Friday that the president "never left once. No doubts, no qualifications."

It was not until the next day, when the Israeli contingent read the newspaper, that they understood what might have been happening the night before, the Israeli official said.

How many times President Clinton left the room is not the point, of course. Those close to both Arafat and Netanyahu perceived that Clinton was distracted and that the Lewinsky affair was interfering with the peace process. And if that is their perception, then it can easily become a reality.

For the last two weeks, much of what has been in print and on television has focused on the sexual side of the story. In addition, the polls have strongly emphasized this angle as well: Did or didn't people care about the president's private life? Were or weren't they concerned that he might have lied about it? In fact, the more important story is not, and should not, be about sex. It is about something more serious: the effectiveness of the president and the long-term impact on the presidency itself.

Clinton understands this. His lawyers argued long ago that the Paula Jones sexual harassment case should be postponed until he left office, lest it consume presidential time and energy. He has had ample reason to contemplate the potential damage of stories alleging adultery. His fear of such disclosures, in the wake of Gary Hart's failed presidential campaign, influenced Clinton's decision not to become a candidate in 1987. His fears were borne out in 1992, when his candidacy was rocked early by Gennifer Flowers's claim of a 12-year affair. He recovered and went on to win, but he had to have learned that it would be unimaginable to be caught having an affair in the White House. He, Hillary Clinton and his advisers certainly must have realized that if a story like this broke, the damage would be swift and potentially catastrophic.

That is exactly what is starting to happen: The Middle East peace process and Iraq are Exhibits A and B of how a scandal can interfere with the workings of government.

A high-ranking member of Congress has confided to those around him that he is holding back his views on Iraq because of Clinton's current personal and legal troubles. He said he is wary of challenging the president on that subject for fear of making him look even weaker than he is.

A member of the president's cabinet has expressed concern privately that if the president orders the bombing of Iraq, it might be perceived as having been done for the wrong reasons. The Cabinet member also has expressed concern about whether the administration has the moral authority in the present climate to back up a decision to use force in Iraq, to put American and foreign lives at risk.

"There are political ramifications to this," said Ashrawi. "If the president sneezes, the world catches a cold. . . . The implication is that it can detract and distract [from governing]. . . . . Or he could do something forceful to distract from his embarrassment. He would strike Iraq and [others might perceive that] one of his motives would be the Lewinsky affair. We don't want him to overcompensate and we don't want him to forget. The proper degree of balance is important."

The Israeli official voiced similar worries. After Netanyahu and Arafat left Washington, they thought they would have a follow-up meeting in Europe two weeks later, and both sides would regroup and prepare answers to some of the questions raised here. The Israelis thought that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not want to return to Israel, but suddenly they learned that she was going to Israel last Saturday night. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were ready for discussion and didn't understand what the rush was about. The feeling in Israel, this official says, was that the president had sent Albright to show that he was tending to business and not preoccupied with the scandal, even if the visit was not a success -- which, he said, it was not.

Every administration has its crises and scandals. For those on a president's staff, it is universally distracting and sometimes debilitating. Hamilton Jordan, former president Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, recalls the atmosphere when Bert Lance, Carter's close friend, resigned as budget director amid allegations of financial misconduct. "You don't know whether it's true or not. You fall off balance. You can't perform. Lance and Carter were off balance. It affected Carter's judgment because they were close personal friends."

A high-ranking official in the Nixon administration says that "having lived through a number of these crises, for the people who are targets and around the targets, it's all-consuming. It is a struggle with life-and-death consequences, getting on top of the facts, dealing with the legal issues, pushing everything aside. In the Nixon administration, it was impossible to get to Nixon or [John] Ehrlichman," Nixon's chief domestic policy adviser. "I tried to get to see Ehrlichman at one point and couldn't get to him on a major issue which had to be decided, and I never did see him. There was no function in the decision-making apparatus. They were totally consumed trying to deal with the legal problems."

Others said the distraction is there, but it doesn't have to become all-consuming. "I don't doubt the fact that some may be distracted," said Cyrus Vance, secretary of state during the Carter administration. "My own feeling is that it will work its course through . . . . but it would be nice if the president had been more clear on what's happening."

"Disruptions are more like a chronic condition," says George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton adviser-turned ABC commentator. "The word of the moment is 'compartmentalize.' They have learned to do that. I would bet it [the scandal] hasn't changed the planning on Iraq."

Stephanopoulos made his comment Wednesday night. On Friday morning, following disclosures about the testimony of Betty Currie, the president's secretary, Stephanopoulos was speculating on ABC that in the morning's White House staff meeting, they were probably talking about how to contain the story. If so, they were probably not focusing on Iraq, which was supposed to be the main event.

To avoid the kind of scene that occurred at the Arafat photo op, the Reagan administration employed "the Deaver rule" -- so named after communications adviser Mike Deaver -- that no questions would be asked during a photo op with a visiting head of state, precisely to avoid embarrassing the visitor.

Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, thinks that would be hard to do today, and not desirable. In the case of the Arafat photo op, McCurry said, "We had to drive public diplomacy with the photo op and Arafat needed some stuff for his street."

In this case, the stuff on the street was pretty messy.

Sally Quinn, a Washington author, is a former Washington Post reporter.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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