PRESIDENT Bill Clinton sounded aggrieved last week as he attacked critics of his foreign policy for advancing "simplistic ideas that sound good on bumper stickers but that would have tragic consequences". He could also have defended his foreign policy by making the embarrassing admission that, after 18 months in office, it differs little from that of President George Bush. On Russia, China, Bosnia, Iraq, Nafta and human rights, Mr Clinton has done nothing new.
Why, then, has he got such a bad press? Only on Somalia and Haiti did he seriously modify Mr Bush's approach. Yet polls show that for the first time most Americans disapprove of his handling of foreign affairs. Abroad foreign commentators are derisive of the Administration's maladroitness.
Mr Bush spelled out the allegation earlier this month. He said: "Our leadership around the world is being eroded by a stop-and-start policy of hesitancy." After victory in the Cold War in 1989 and over Iraq in 1991, American wishes have been successfuly challenged by Bosnian Serbs, Somali warlords and Haitian generals.
Mr Clinton changed so little in American foreign policy when he came into office that the real failure must be in the policy itself and not primarily in the men implementing it. The real lesson is that the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived American leaders of a credible external threat to mobilise opinion at home, and allies abroad.
A poll last month showed that just three per cent of Americans think foreign affairs are the country's most important problem. Some 51 per cent give priority to crime, drugs and violence, 44 per cent say other social problems and 35 per cent the economy. Only against Iraq is there any support for military intervention.
There is more here than neo-isolationism. Michael Clough, Senior Fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, argues in Foreign Affairs magazine that the foreign policy establishment which held sway from Pearl Harbour in 1941 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 "is losing both its bearings and its sway".
For 50 years, writes Mr Clough, the "most reliable, the fastest and often the only way to become a player in the national foreign policy debate was to locate oneself along the Harvard-Manhattan- Foggy Bottom corridor". The Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington with its international and Atlanticist traditions contained all the main foreign policy institutions as well as the New York Times and the three networks.
Battered and divided by the Vietnam war, the foreign policy establishment still displaced the earlier and longer American tradition of "no entangling alliances". But the defeat of Communism meant it lost the prime justification for its existence. Washington is now full of institutions which do not know what they are meant to do.
The Pentagon has dealt with the problem by refusing to acknowledge that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. Although scaling down its numbers, the Defense Department is still procuring weapons like the F-18E aircraft and the Seawolf submarine geared to meet the next generation of Soviet weapons. It has steadfastly objected to getting involved in small wars, like Bosnia and Haiti, which are the only ones which it is likely to be called upon to fight.
Here again Mr Clinton has introduced very little change. During the presidential election campaign he steered debate away from defence cuts. His clash with the armed forces over ending the ban on homosexuals reduced the White House's already minimal appetite for any confrontation with the Pentagon. His first Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, was deeply unpopular with the generals who feared him as an agent of change. By firing him, Mr Clinton showed the Chiefs of Staff that they were safe from reform. …