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Rambling man

International | If Air Force One had a frequent flyer program, Bill Clinton could worry less about a foreign-policy legacy and more about where to spend all those bonus miles

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

Merchants at Beijing's Hongqiao Market proudly display photos taken with President Bill Clinton during his trip to China. One jewelry saleswoman does not trumpet her merchandise when she spies American shoppers, but gestures instead to a prominent poster-size shot taken of her with the chief executive when he toured the market in 1998. Youthful by comparison to Chinese leaders, Mr. Clinton was a sensation during his nine-day visit, sidling up to China's entrepreneurial masses with the grip and grin that back home became shopworn long ago.

In America, the China trip was a sensation of a different sort. It prompted a General Accounting Office inquiry after Republicans in Congress complained that the president's overseas excursions were turning into champagne travel on the taxpayers' budget. The China trip cost taxpayers $19 million and included over 500 U.S. government officials, in addition to private business leaders. Altogether the GAO investigation looked at three 1998 trips by Mr. Clinton-to China, South America, and Africa-and found that the president spent $72 million. The tab did not include security expenses, both Secret Service and military, because those figures are classified.

To Chile, Mr. Clinton ferried 592 people; 109 were White House employees. For the 12-day tour of Africa, 1,300 people escorted the president. Sixteen members of Congress and 205 White House employees were in that number. Not since Teddy Roosevelt took nine dozen porters on safari in Kenya (just after leaving office) has an American president been so well attended. According to records kept by the State Department, Mr. Clinton as of June 2000 logged 212 days overseas during his two terms. President Ronald Reagan, by comparison, spent 84 days abroad during his two terms. Former President George Bush spent 86 days outside the United States during his four years as president. Criticism of Clinton excursions was "particularly shortsighted," then-White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said after release of the GAO report, because the trips were meant to reap major foreign-policy gains.

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With the verdicts starting to roll in, experts aren't so sure of that equation. They say the travel excesses are indicative of a foreign policy in service to a domestic agenda. Mr. Clinton piled passengers into Air Force One the same way he rotated guests through the Lincoln Bedroom. Lead-off foreign policy decisions for the president in his first year ended formal talks with Russia about missile defense-a sop to disarmament Democrats-and overturned a U.S. policy that prohibited taxpayer funding of organizations promoting abortion overseas, a laurel for his pro-abortion and feminist voters; an invasion of Haiti soothed the Black Caucus; Kosovo intervention calmed the outrage of human-rights organizers.

Scattershot globetrotting is a roadmap to eight years of diplomacy that appears miles and miles wide but inches deep. Jeffrey Gedmin, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and lecturer at Georgetown University, said, "I don't know that there is a useful correlation between the amount of time spent abroad and the effectiveness of a president's foreign policy." Mr. Clinton, he said, began his first term focusing on domestic issues to the exclusion of foreign policy. Once reports got out that he was not even attending national security briefings, "he slowly realized the United States is a superpower and must be engaged."

Then Mr. Clinton compiled a quick list of successes. His controversial bailout of Mexico-a $20 billion loan made without the approval of Congress-paid off. Mexico reimbursed the U.S. treasury before its deadline and stabilized its economy. The president's appointment of Richard Holbrooke, who later became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia produced a set of accords in 1995. Many regard the accords as flawed, but they nonetheless ended all-out fighting in the region. Mr. Clinton helped to restart talks between Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army and the British government, although they have yet to produce a final settlement.

Achievements dear to conservative Christians accrued during the Clinton years, but often against the president's wishes. The administration bowed to pressure from evangelical leaders to create a religious-freedom panel within the State Department, then buried many of its recommendations. Hudson Institute scholar Michael Horowitz, who helped draft the legislation that created an independent commission to report on persecution around the world, said Mr. Clinton opposed tracking persecution. He signed the measure into law after both houses passed it overwhelmingly. The president also argued against legislation to tighten criminal statutes for sexual traffickers, but signed that bill after some feminist groups endorsed it. One gauge of his true feelings on those issues, according to Mr. Horowitz: Mr. Clinton signed the bills without a public ceremony. "He was in no way wanting to be identified with those causes," said Mr. Horowitz.

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