Tucked away in a suite of discreet offices near Covent Garden, London's International Institute for Strategic Studies is a serious sort of place. Last Friday morning, it turned almost giddy. In his daily news briefing, the institute's information director told some 20 thoughtful researchers that President Bill Clinton had just promised to make a decision on the Bosnian crisis " in due course." "I wonder if it will be in this term," cracked one researcher, a 27-year-old Ukraine specialist, setting off a rare outburst of general hilarity.
American voters aren't the only ones growing disenchanted with Clinton. His handling of the Bosnian crisis has Americans and their allies snapping at each other across the Atlantic. Europeans complain that he seems indecisive and unsure of himself. "We started with a clear impression of a man with a lack of knowledge background and depth when it comes to foreign policy," says Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of the IISS. "Now that's been followed by a lack of decision making."
The allies were ready to make allowances for Clinton's inexperience. But more veteran members of his team, notably Secretary of State Warren Christopher, also seemed to lack force and focus. "Frankly, he didn't do a very good job of presenting his case," a senior British official said of Christopher's recent European trip. "At times, we weren't even sure what his case was." Christopher asked the allies for advice rather than pushing a clear course of action. "The French liked Reagan and Bush, the tough-guy approach," says Nicole Bernheim, author of a new book called "L'Amerique de Clinton." "The fact that Clinton came from Arkansas added to this image of him as another Jimmy Carter, whereas Reagan represented the post-1945, victorious America, the America of GIs, chewing gum, wide-open spaces."
Bosnia isn't the only problem. The allies sensed a certain aimlessness in Clinton's first 100 days. They saw him waste time and momentum on ill-fated cabinet appointments and on relatively peripheral issues like gays in the military. His economic-stimulus program was torpedoed in the Senate. He seemed to waffle on deficit reduction. While Clinton had trouble engineering economic recovery at home, he also failed to set a clear trade policy abroad. "Restoring the U.S. economy to full health is a priority for the global system, too," says, Oxford historian Robert O'Neill. "Without that, economic growth in East Asia will falter, and recovery in Western Europe will take that much longer-particularly recovery in Germany."
The U.S. leadership vacuum couldn't have come at a worse time for the Europeans. Their economies are in recession. Governments face political strain: in France, an uneasy cohabitation of left and right; in Germany, the ongoing pains of reunification; in Britain, the withering of John Major; in Italy, chaos and corruption. America has its own domestic problems, and Clinton wants to address them. But in doing so, he looks weak on Bosnia.
The allies disagree on the nature of the crisis there. Washington sees another Munich taking shape in Bosnia; the Europeans think it is another Ulster, an insoluble problem sure to bloody the nose of anyone who tries to fix it. Last week Sen. Joseph Biden, an influential Democrat, angrily accused allied governments of "indifference, timidity, selfdelusion and hypocrisy" on Bosnia. Some Europeans accused Clinton of weak leadership. "I don't blame him for waffling, but you can't pump yourself full of air and not jump," said Theo Sommer, publisher of the liberal German weekly Die Zeit. "Don't ask me whether Europeans would be willing to follow [American] leadership, but we don't even see an attempt."
Clinton faces a world full of problems that he will have to address quickly if he wants to reassure his allies. He has to make sense of Bosnia and his own economic policies. He has to straighten out his trade policy and decide how closely to tie China's most-favored-nation status to its performance on human rights. He has to revive the Mideast peace talks, which adjourned in stalemate last week. He has to rally support for Boris Yeltsin's reforms in Russia. He has to find a new role for the NATO alliance (if not peacemaking in places like Bosnia, then what?).
Many Europeans still admire one thing about Clinton: his youth. As the first babyboomer to enter the White House, he has accomplished a generational change that still eludes most of the allies, with their geriatric leaders. "The Americans have saxophones, and we have sexagenarians," complains columnist Nicolas Domenach of the Paris weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi. The price the world has to pay for Clinton's youth is inexperience, uncertain leadership and a lack of gravitas. The president can correct those deficiencies, and the allies expect him to. But their impatience is rising.