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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreign Issues May Ambush Bill Clinton

On the morning after the triumphant election night in Bill Clinton's Governor's mansion in Little Rock, all was quiet. Clinton had got to bed just after 4 A. M.


The phone in the private quarters suddenly rang. A young staffer picked it up and heard "Will you hold please for President Boris Yeltsin".


The young staffer checked with Bruce Lind-say, Clinton's campaign manager and former law partner, who said, "No, let him sleep".


John Major, the Prime Minister of Britain, got the same answer, and so did Helmut Kohl of Germany. The next President of the United States was "not available -- call back tomorrow".


Clinton was delighted. The message that he wanted to send, to the American people more than to foreign leaders, had been delivered. This would be a President who would give foreign affairs a lesser priority than George Bush.


But then Clinton told Lindsay to get his foreign affairs advisers to draft briefs oh three crises which could distract him from the immediate concern of re-starting the American economy and pushing his reforms through Congress.


The issues were the threat of a trade war with the European Community, where the Bush Administration was about to impose $300 million in punitive tariffs on European imports. The second was how to keep the Middle East peace talks going. The third was the faltering of democracy and economic reform in Russia.


Clinton is hoping almost desperately that the two most immediate issues, Yeltsin's fate in Russia and the trade war with Europe, can be resolved while Bush is at the helm.


On the trade war, this might just work. The British are telling the French and the European Commission that they will get a better trade deal out of George Bush than they will with the more protectionist President Clinton, who will have to establish his credentials for toughness early.


On Russia, Clinton's advisers are right to say that the constitutional crisis will reach its peak in December, when the full parliament re-convenes and the reformist government of Gaidar is expected to come under severe pressure. But they are probably wrong to think that this will settle anything to the point where the White House can breathe more easily next year.


"You will probably have heard more about Moscow in this election campaign than you will from the Clinton Administration", Clinton's Issues Director Bruce Reed quipped to me last week. It was a good line. But Reed could not be more wrong.


Signs are that Clinton's focus on domestic affairs is going to be diverted from day one by bickerings with Europe and Japan, and by the great drama now beginning to unfold in Moscow.