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Making up with New Zealand

President Clinton was asked at last week's press conference how he intended to resolve an embarrassing eight-year diplomatic conflict over the refusal of the New Zealand government to grant American nuclear warships access to its country's ports.

"I've given absolutely no thought to that question," the president replied.

Give him an A for disarming candor. Presidents and other top government officials often don't have an answer for important policy questions, but they seldom admit as much.

But give him an F for alarming ignorance _ and for an unnecessary put-down of a nation that historically has been one of the United States' most dependable allies.

The president drew laughs from the reporters assembled for his relentlessly good humored press conference, but he surely got a different reaction at the New Zealand embassy. The unnecessary impasse over New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy is neither humorous nor trivial, and it would behoove President Clinton _ who seems to have devised an eight-point plan for dealing with every other issue under the sun _ to give it the attention it deserves.

When New Zealanders voted in 1984 to establish their country as a nuclear-free zone, the decision was not intended as a direct slap at the United States, but the Reagan administration chose to react to it that way. It immediately suspended all military and intelligence links with New Zealand, essentially terminating longstanding treaty commitments that were central to our security apparatus in the Pacific.

The Bush administration, which had no problem maintaining friendly relations with governments such as China and Syria, continued to treat New Zealand as a pariah. And President Clinton admits that he has spent five months in the White House without giving the matter a minute's thought.

Once he finds a minute to spare, the president should see the wisdom of ending our government's bullying of New Zealand. The U.S. nuclear fleet has suffered only a minor inconvenience as a result of New Zealand's action, and the subsequent suspension of normal political and military cooperation has done far more harm to our security interests.

President Clinton should begin making up for lost time by offering to work with our New Zealand friends to make our mutual security needs compatible with New Zea-landers' conscientious decision to establish a nuclear-free zone. Besides healing an old wound with New Zealand, the gesture would help to reassure other governments that our security relationships will be based on cooperation rather than coercion.