The latest brain-twister making the rounds in Washington goes like this:
With so many exceptionally bright, well-educated people in the Clinton administration, how come we look so dumb when it comes to foreign and defense policy?
As you might imagine, the Clintonians don't like this one at all.
Even though they brag a lot about having more Rhodes scholars and Ivy League grads than any administration in history, they like to point out that Bill Clinton was elected president to sort out America's domestic problems, not to spend all his time on foreign affairs like George Bush.
And while some administration officials might admit privately that mistakes were made during their first few months in office, they insist that most of the rough spots have been ironed out. The learning curve on foreign policy, they claim, is rising sharply.
Even if you buy that _ and so far not too many do _ the fact is that all these sophisticated overachievers seem to be getting outsharped by the locals on a regular basis. From Somalia to Sarajevo, from Moscow to Tokyo and on to Pyongyang, America's new foreign policy elite is too often coming out second best in a contest of two.
Somalia is as good a place as any to start. Clinton inherited the problem from Bush, to be sure, but wasted no time putting his own stamp on it. Instead of declaring victory and pulling American troops out of Somalia last spring as Bush had envisioned, Clinton decided to keep most of them there under United Nations command, but without the tanks and armored personnel carriers that had been protecting them on the ground.
So when the United Nations, with full backing from Washington, decided to go after Somali chieftain Mohamed Farrah Aidid as a war criminal, the American troops bore the brunt of the action. And because they didn't have the armor to back them up, they got bloodied.
Aidid may never have been a Rhodes scholar, but it didn't take him long to outwit the Clinton administration as well as the United Nations. Within months, he had America apologizing for trying to rough him up and even giving him rides around Africa in U.S. Air Force transport planes.
Definitely not one of our shining moments.
And neither, of course, was Bosnia. We spent most of the past year making one excuse after another to avoid doing anything about Bosnia.
First, we said that Bosnia's security was a foreign policy priority but that those nasty Europeans _ mainly Britain and France _ were stopping us from doing anything about it. Then one day Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that Bosnia wasn't a foreign policy priority after all, that we had better things to worry about than regional conflicts.
That changed again when a mortar bomb killed 68 people in Sarajevo and shamed us as well as the Europeans into threatening retaliation against the Bosnian Serbs. It looked, finally, as if we were going to do something.
But before we and our European allies could move, Boris Yeltsin horned in on the action by rushing 400 Russian "peacekeepers" to Sarajevo. In one stroke, Yeltsin had saved the day for Moscow's Serbian allies, made himself a hero at home and, most importantly, stopped U.S. and European plans dead.
Unable to thump the bad guys in Somalia and Bosnia, we've now decided to thump our friends _ or at least one of them, Japan.
Last month, you'll remember, Clinton and Morihiro Hosokawa, the Japanese prime minister, had a summit meeting in Washington that ended in total failure. The issue, of course, was Japan's nearly $60-billion trade surplus with us and what to do about it.
What the administration is demanding _ and the Japanese are resisting _ is that certain American-made products have guaranteed percentage shares of the Japanese market.
Nobody at the White House finds it strange that if anybody demanded something like that from us we would throw them out the door in two seconds. The answer would be that we have a free-market economy and the government can't guarantee anybody anything much less a fixed share of a certain market.
The Japanese, who also pride themselves on having a free market economy, are, however, expected to produce guarantees. And to make sure they do so quickly, Clinton revived the so-called "Super 301" trade law Thursday so he can bludgeon the Japanese into action.
Makes you wonder if it might not be better to be Washington's enemy instead of its friend.
Finally, one of the more worrisome foreign policy debacles of all _ North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.
As you read this, a team of United Nations experts is inspecting North Korea's seven main nuclear installations. They're doing this because we cut a deal with the North Koreans agreeing, among other things, to cancel our joint military maneuvers with South Korea this year.
But after giving up the maneuvers for a round of inspections, what do we do when the North Koreans tell us we've had our look-see and that's that? How do we get them to let the United Nations inspect again next year, or, more importantly, see two other off-limits nuclear sites where we think they're really doing the weapons research?
Having spent all of our big bargaining chips, are we really ready to offer North Korea foreign aid money? If not, what?
Again, not a pretty dilemma we've made for ourselves.
There are other troubles, of course. The Western Europeans feel neglected. So do the Latin Americans. The Eastern Europeans think we're selling them out to the Russians by not letting them in NATO.
I could go on but what's the point. The question still stands: How have all these smart people at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon got us into so many seemingly unsolvable problems?
Or is it, as they like to point out, only that the world somehow got three times as complicated in the last 14 months?