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Classic Clinton: Waffle and wait

Rarely does a single action so perfectly encapsulate a presidency as Bill Clinton's last-minute decision on the Cuban trade boycott. Here was the issue: Clinton had until midnight Tuesday to waive one particularly strict provision of the Helms-Burton Act, the latest trade sanctions against Cuba. That provision would, as of Aug. 1, allow an American citizen who once owned property confiscated by the Cuban government to sue any foreign company now using that nationalized property.

What did Clinton do? Did he waive or did he affirm? Neither. He offered instead a demonstration of vintage split-waffle-and-wait Clintonism: The provision stands but goes into a six-month limbo during which it is "suspended." Meantime, no lawsuits may be filed. What happens on Feb. 1, 1997? Tune in.

Note the date, conveniently after the presidential election. Cuban-American voters in Florida and New Jersey, heavyweight electoral-vote states, want this Helms-Burton provision to scare foreign investors out of Cuba and add to the ruin of Castro's economy. But the allies, even friendlies like Great Britain and Canada, are livid because this provision exposes their nationals who have entered into business arrangements with the legitimate government of Cuba to serious litigation in the United States.

Clinton's solution? Punt _ but just beyond the last election campaign of his career. The cynicism of this maneuver is matched only by its aimlessness. Clinton has no idea where he wants to go with Cuba. But he has a very good idea of where popular and outside pressures will allow him to go. And that is where he goes on every issue.

Clinton originally opposed Helms-Burton, precisely because it would arouse so much allied opposition. After Cuba shot down two unarmed planes piloted by Cuban-Americans, Clinton caved and went along. But not before demanding and getting the right to waive the "lawsuit" provision. Yet when the time came for him to waive, he froze.

In fact, he did not make his decision, such as it is, until agonizing until the very last permissible day, Tuesday. He'd been up late the night before receiving recommendations from his Cabinet members as the deadline approached.

Now, one can understand a president staying up late to make a difficult foreign policy decision, as this one was, in a crisis that comes up suddenly. But the July 16 deadline was written into a law that Clinton signed on March 12! The grad-student, pizza-gobbling, all-nighter style of White House decisionmaking is generally explained as simply the first-year aberration of a new regime. Yet here is Clinton in Year Four, cramming for his multiple-choice Cuba exam _ an exam with but a single yes-or-no question _ just as the buzzer goes off.

And what's his answer? Yes and no. Coming from the ultimate yes-and-no president, it was, I suppose, to be expected.

What should the answer have been? Yes, waive the provision.

Why? Secondary boycotts _ penalizing outsiders who don't follow our primary boycott _ are costly. Not to us directly, but to our relations with allies. The problem is not so much financial as psychological. Allies hate secondary boycotts. They are naked demonstrations of America using brute economic force to push them around in areas where they are otherwise quite sovereign.

In this case, we are using our market power to say to the government and tycoons of a country like Britain: You can do business with Cuba or you can do business with us, but not both. In the end, they choose us. They must. But they don't like it.

True, allied sensitivities are not the only consideration. When a country poses a real danger to American (and allied) national security, secondary boycotts are a necessary weapon. When it comes to, say, Iran or Libya, which are not just bad actors but are engaged in terrorism and actively preparing to build terrible weapons of mass destruction, it is worth enduring allied anger and forcing a boycott. Starving the likes of Iran and Libya of investment and technology is a high national interest that far overrides allied sensitivities.

But Castro? He is preparing no terrible weapons. And emasculated by the fall of the Soviet empire, he is no longer a threat to any of his neighbors.

Yes, we owe him for all the grief he caused us from the Cuban missile crisis (when he urged his Soviet patrons, in case of invasion, to launch a nuclear attack on us) to Nicaragua, Grenada, El Salvador and Angola. Payback is sweet. But it is not sufficient cause to justify the kind of alliance dissension occasioned by secondary boycotts.

Secondary boycotts? Yes. But they are heavy-duty weapons that should be reserved for real threats only. We needn't waste one on a Caribbean ranter with all the relevance of Napoleon on St. Helena.

Washington Post Writers Group