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Clinton security guru praises foreign policy

Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, isn't completely happy about how the Clinton administration's foreign policy is being judged these days.

Sitting in his expansive corner office in the west wing of the White House, Lake insists that the administration's performance in foreign affairs _ especially over the past two years _ has been a lot better than what many Americans are hearing about on television or reading in the newspapers. The public, he believes, is getting plenty of information about passing troubles and temporary setbacks, but not enough about positive, long-term developments.

Unfortunately, Lake is saying these things only a few hours after the head of the Central Intelligence Agency was testifying before Congress about one of our more notable passing troubles and temporary setbacks _ Saddam Hussein.

So the first question I ask the president's foreign policy guru is whether CIA chief John Deutch was correct in telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Iraqi leader came out ahead in his latest showdown with Washington. Isn't this assessment at odds with the White House line?

Lake, smiling and obviously ready for this one, somehow manages to tell his visitors _ five newspaper reporters _ yes and no at the same time.

"Saddam took advantage of a tactical opportunity to make some gains," he acknowledges, adding that, "We hope that the gains that he made in the north are transitory."

But already, he notes, the Kurdish faction that threw in with Hussein in northern Iraq is trying to get back on good terms with the United States and talks toward that end are under way.

Most importantly, Lake continues, the Iraqi leader came away from this month's confrontation less threatening to his neighbors and U.S. interests in the region. "Saddam is still in his box, and it's a smaller box than before."

The Clinton administration acted, and acted correctly, he concludes, because if it hadn't, Hussein would have been tempted to additional, more dangerous, adventure.

Lake's conclusion, delivered in the crucial stages of a presidential election campaign, is no surprise, the CIA director notwithstanding. But what about America's allies, Turkey in particular? Weren't they less than helpful this time around?

Lake tells his visitors that American action against Hussein was, indeed, "a harder sell this time" than when former President George Bush put together his gulf war coalition with European and Arab allies five years ago. The denial of air base rights by Turkey, now governed by an anti-Western prime minister, was especially problematic.

But overall, he says, allied containment of Hussein is holding, and the gulf war coalition is intact.

By this time, the sun is dipping low on a crisp, early autumn afternoon, shining through the double height windows that look out over the White House lawn and Pennsylvania Avenue. Lake decides it's time to get to his central point.

The containment of Saddam Hussein, he says, is only one of the positive, long-term developments put in motion since Clinton became president in January 1993. Far more important, he continues, is the administration's leadership in moving toward a peaceful and unified Europe.

Because of careful management of the post-Cold War situation by Clinton and former President Bush before him, Lake says, it's now possible to consider expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward. NATO leaders will be meeting next spring, probably to approve membership for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Also, he says, Washington is taking the lead in creating the 21st century's global economy _ a free and fair trading system based on the strengths of the United States, Europe and Asia as well as the emerging economies of Latin America.

Most important of all, says Lake, the world is a much safer place now than it was four years ago. Because of Washington's efforts, the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus had given up their nuclear weapons, and those deployed in Russia were no longer aimed at the United States. A nuclear non-proliferation treaty is in place and nuclear test explosions are just about a thing of the past.

It's hard to quibble with any of Lake's main themes, but it's worth noting again that we're in the middle of a presidential election campaign.

It's worth noting, too, that some of Lake's points, notably those about the latest Iraq crisis, might be characterized as masterful political spinning _ the glass always seems to be half full when others might see it as half empty.

Even so, it's good that the president's most dedicated expert on the subject is making the administration's best case on foreign policy. The shame is that most of these issues aren't getting the wider hearing they deserve this campaign season.

We ended with meeting with a discussion about Lake's other passion _ baseball, more specifically the Boston Red Sox. A Red Sox fan, he notes, has to be a supreme optimist.

Not a bad quality for President Clinton's national security adviser, either.

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