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Clinton Sets Limits on U.S. Role in International Strife

By John M. Broder
Los Angeles Times


President Clinton, in his first major statement of foreign policy principles, said Monday that despite America's preoccupation with domestic economic affairs it would remain actively engaged in world affairs.

But in virtually the same breath, Clinton sought to set limits for U.S. involvement in distant conflicts and humanitarian disasters, saying that American participation would be constrained by questions of cost, command and national interest.

"The United States intends to remain engaged and to lead," the president said in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly. "We cannot solve every problem, but we must and will serve as a fulcrum for change and a pivot point for peace."

But Clinton warned the delegates that the United States will not be drawn into costly and dangerous U.N. peacekeeping missions unless certain fundamental questions are answered before, not after, troops are committed. He asserted that the world body was unprepared to deal with modern conflicts, saying, "You cannot let the reach of the U.N. exceed its grasp."

"The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world's conflicts," Clinton said. "If the American people are to say yes to U.N. peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no."

Although Clinton barely mentioned them in his 36-minute address, he clearly had in mind the troubled U.N. operation in Somalia and to the prospect of as many as 50,000 troops -- half of them American -- being sent to enforce a peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia.

In a press conference later in the day, Clinton for the first time delineated the conditions that must be met before he would agree to deploy American forces to Bosnia.

He said that the United States will not send troops unless the operation is led by an American, unless there is a political as well as a military strategy in place before it begins, unless there is a well-defined timetable for withdrawal and unless there is an equitable sharing of costs among all the nations involved.

Clinton's overriding message, which he mentioned several times at the 21-minute press conference, was, "There are limits to how many things we can do."

Aides said that Clinton was sending an unmistakable signal to world leaders that, after the experience in Somalia, he will have difficulty persuading Congress and the American public to embark on an open-ended military mission in Bosnia without a compelling reason for being there and an identifiable strategy for getting out.

Clinton's relative lack of engagement in foreign affairs was evident in the colorless tone of the U.N. speech, as contrasted with the passionate presentation of his health plan last week.

Clinton was interrupted by applause twice -- when he mentioned U.S. resolve to punish terrorists responsible for the downing of Pan Am 103 and the World Trade Center bombing, and when he called for the creation of a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Although American guests of the president stood to applaud at the end of his speech, the delegates remained in their seats.

Clinton promised the assembly that the United States would pay within the next several weeks the $373 million in overdue peacekeeping assessments that it owes to the United Nations. The United States also owes $460 in back dues for regular U.N. operations, which will be repaid over the next two years.

Clinton also said the U.N. must embark upon an effort to modernize its procedures and cut its expenses. He noted that Vice President Al Gore had developed a plan for streamlining the American government and said, "Now the time has come to reinvent the way the United Nations operates as well."

Clinton's perfunctory remarks about peacekeeping did little to ease the concern among U.N. officials about the brewing controversy in Washington over the American role in Somalia and Bosnia.

Some of the troubled U.N. mood was reflected by Joe Sills, chief U.N. spokesman, who told a news briefing that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has long argued that the United Nations must limit its peacekeeping operations, although "the secretary-general hasn't said it so abruptly" as Clinton.