After Election, Expect Clinton Surprises

Here’s a guessing game. Let’s try to figure out what big December surprises President Clinton is going to pop after the congressional elections.

Political junkies know about October surprises. During presidential campaigns, the candidate challenging a president often frets that the White House is going to unveil some spectacularly popular foreign policy success that will sway voters shortly before election day.

“Peace is at hand,” Henry A. Kissinger announced shortly before the 1972 vote, thus dashing whatever dim hopes George S. McGovern had of defeating President Nixon. Later challengers, from Reagan in 1980 to Clinton in 1992, have been haunted by the fear of history repeating itself.

December surprises are of a different nature. They are the far-reaching, potentially unpopular foreign-policy moves that a president makes soon after mid-term congressional elections. The timing is crucial: The pressure of an impending election has just been lifted, and it will be another two years before Americans get to vote again.


A classic case was President Carter’s decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with China in December 1978. His predecessors, Nixon and Ford, had repeatedly delayed this step for fear of a backlash at home. Carter waited until the congressional elections were over, then acted six weeks later.

Clinton now seems to be operating on a similar schedule. Until the November elections, his foreign policy will be largely a bland amalgamation of trip diplomacy and cosmetics--lots of frequent-flyer miles on Air Force One, and not much in the way of substantive changes.

The president’s visit to Latin America last weekend was typical. Underlying the photo opportunities was the reality that one of Clinton’s main initiatives for the region is on hold.

The president failed last fall to persuade Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade agreements. At the time, he said he planned to try again this year. He hasn’t done so. “Be patient with us,” the president told Latin American leaders.


Those words could serve as Clinton’s foreign-policy slogan for 1998, at least until November. Indeed, based upon the White House performance these days, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that this is an administration committed to the safe, the popular and the status quo.

But that isn’t entirely true. If you look closely, you can find little hints of future surprises.

So what sorts of initiatives is the White House preparing for the end of 1998? Here are four guesses.

1. CUBA. The administration has already taken a few tiny steps toward easing the 37-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. For example, it is quietly supporting legislation to grant an exemption from the embargo for food and medicine. But watch for some much bigger moves concerning Cuba after November--either a considerably broader action to ease the trade embargo or a new diplomatic initiative toward Havana.


2. IRAN. Over the last two months, America has sent a wrestling team to Tehran, and Iran has sent some of its wrestlers to Oklahoma. You can draw the obvious conclusion: The administration is exploring the possibility of significantly upgrading its ties with Iran.

But not quite yet. National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger says Clinton is being told that when it comes to Iran, “You need to dance, but dance slowly.” Watch for the music to pick up after the fall elections.

3. CHINA. Don’t expect too much from Clinton’s visit there this June. He may further ease the sanctions imposed on Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, such as by opening the way for the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to insure American businesses in China.

Again, the real action probably won’t come until after November. Clinton will likely press for China to get most-favored-nation trade benefits on a permanent basis, rather than through one-year renewals. To do this, he may ask Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a law that requires communist regimes to get annual extensions of their MFN benefits. That would end the annual congressional debates over China that the administration, China and the American business community detest.


4. VIETNAM. In recent months, Clinton has been tiptoeing toward a full-scale American economic relationship with Vietnam--one that would allow Vietnamese products to be sold freely in the United States. But that requires MFN status, which Vietnam doesn’t have. And before Vietnam gets these benefits, there has to be a formal trade agreement between the two countries.

A trade deal is now being negotiated and could be ready by later this year. So after the November elections, Clinton could announce that he is opening the way for normal trade with Vietnam. There’s even a perfect place for him to do this. He is already scheduled to travel to Southeast Asia after the congressional elections for an annual meeting of Asian leaders. He could easily stop in Vietnam during this trip.

So we could have this spectacle: Clinton sojourning to Hanoi, talking about the process of healing, triumphing over the old criticism of his lack of service in the Vietnam War--and offering MFN benefits, too.

OK, this trip would be in late November. But metaphorically, at least, it would be a classic December surprise.


Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.