Global Allies, Foes See a Battered Clinton

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The impact of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal has gone global.

Bemused foreigners, who for months dismissed President Clinton's domestic troubles as a curious, yet harmless, example of America's collective neurosis about sex, now wrestle with a new truth: The leader of the free world is severely wounded. And for America's friends, that cannot be a good thing.

"Clinton Broken," screamed the front-page headline in Friday's editions of the French daily Le Parisien.

"The president is now not a lame duck, but a dead duck," declared the Independent in London.

The headlines may prove overstated, but foreign affairs specialists worry that the crippling effects of the president's crisis come at a particularly dangerous phase of the post-Cold War era. The experts agree that various trouble spots--from Russia's economic chaos and the continued stalemate in the Middle East peace process to renewed Iraqi intransigence and the continued Asian financial crisis--share one common thread: They all cry out for bold, creative action by the United States and its president at a time when such action by a preoccupied Clinton seems almost impossible.

"This is not a good moment," summed up Robert Zoellick, former undersecretary of State in the Bush administration. "People all around the world, both allies and enemies, see the president in a weakened position."

Exactly how Clinton's working relations with other world leaders might be affected by publication of the lurid sexual details in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress remains largely unanswered, although extramarital liaisons are certainly not uncommon among them, especially in Europe.

Austria President Thomas Klestil went through a messy separation from his wife in the midst of an affair with a Foreign Ministry aide. Irish Premier Bertie Ahern, though still married, is in a long-term relationship with a woman who was once his secretary. And the late French President Francois Mitterrand fathered a child from an extramarital relationship.

In these cases, however, there was no attempted cover-up. One European political figure, who declined to be named, expressed disgust not with Clinton's affair but with the immaturity of his partner and the shallowness of the relationship.

In Washington, a mixture of concern, despair, frustration and anger runs though those who deal with the nation's foreign affairs as they watch the deeply distracted president with one eye and a crisis-filled world with the other.

From their perspective, fallout from Clinton's affair casts a darkening shadow over the international arena. Consider these recent developments:

* In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair feels compelled to reaffirm his friendship with Clinton amid reports he was considering canceling a trip to the U.S. this month because of the scandal.

* In Paris, the respected daily Le Monde wrings its hands that, as the globe drifts in crisis, "the president of the world's only superpower involves himself in adolescent lies." The paper goes on to suggest that Clinton's problems open the door for Europe's leaders to play a more active role in shaping the world's future.

* In Moscow and in Ireland, the scandal exacts its toll during the president's stops there, undercutting his renowned ability to energize others with a personal enthusiasm. Clinton's efforts to inject beleaguered Russians with a sense of confidence about their uncertain future fall short, while in Dublin and Belfast, those who come out to cheer his efforts to end the decades of sectarian violence suddenly seem more worried about him than themselves. "Can he survive? Will he make it?" are the questions frequently asked by the Irish.

* In Washington last week, the same questions come from an anxious Chinese scholar visiting a local think tank. For China's leaders, the possibility that the president might not survive his travails is deeply worrying. In Asia, personal relationships are crucial and the current leaders in Beijing have invested heavily in building bridges to Clinton.

White House officials said Clinton returned to the nation's foreign affairs agenda Saturday, talking by telephone for 30 minutes with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and holding a wide-ranging hourlong meeting with his foreign policy team.

But if there is one certainty in the events playing themselves out in Washington, it is that there is little hope of diverting attention from the scandal, even among those on Clinton's foreign policy team. "Everything is so overwhelmed by the Lewinsky affair that it's hard to get the attention of others," said a senior administration official who deals with foreign affairs.

A White House staffer described the scandal's effect on the administration as "an enormous disaster in every regard, including the efficacy of foreign policy."

The aide added: "If the tires are flat on a presidency, everything stops."

The collective effect of all this on the U.S. foreign policy agenda and how lasting it might be is impossible to calculate, but the result is clearly damaging.

"All those who would wish for a paralyzed America are totally satisfied, and all of those who were expecting America to play a leading role are totally disappointed," summed up Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Some analysts worry that the turmoil plaguing Clinton will continue to embolden America's adversaries.

"We know [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] and [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic are addicted to CNN, we know [North Korean leader] Kim Il Jong watches CNN, and they can't help but think U.S. command authority is distracted," said a congressional staffer who deals in foreign affairs. "For us, this is a very tense time."

Others fret that the scandal has placed on hold any chances of new diplomatic initiatives to rebuild U.S. ties with Iran, Cuba or Vietnam--all difficult, controversial steps that require strong presidential leadership, all steps that only a few months ago seemed possible.

On Capitol Hill, the president's leverage to push his foreign policy agenda seems to have all but disappeared.

In recent days, Congress has given short shrift to administration requests for an $18-billion replenishment of the International Monetary Fund (the House Appropriations Committee approved only $3.4 billion), shown little interest in granting Clinton more power in determining the use of economic sanctions and torpedoed further funding of fuel oil shipments to North Korea that are part of an administration-brokered deal to keep the communist regime from building its own nuclear capability.

A comment by a senior European-based U.S. diplomat captured the concern throughout the foreign relations community. "Can you imagine President Clinton giving his full attention to anybody who now comes to ask him, 'What do we do about the Malaysian economy or North Korea?' He's going to think about what [is] in those 36 boxes; he wouldn't be human if he didn't."

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Times staff writers Norman Kempster, Jim Mann and Robin Wright in Washington; Marjorie Miller in London; John-Thor Dahlburg in Geneva; Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem; Dexter Filkins in Islamabad; Richard Boudreaux in Sarajevo; James F. Smith in Mexico City; and Times researchers Sarah White in Paris and Anthony Kohn in Beijing contributed to this story.

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