JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, President Clinton addressed the families of the victims in the Pan Am 103 tragedy. He left a clear impression: Their long wait for justice would soon be over.

Four months earlier, the president had discarded the standing American policy of insisting that the accused murderers be tried either in the United States or the United Kingdom, and had accepted a British compromise to permit trial in the Netherlands, presided over by Scottish judges. It was a "take it or leave it" proposal, the Clinton administration said, expecting an answer from Libya no later than the tenth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster: December 21, 1998.

Although many felt that the compromise offer gave away too much, dissent from Clinton's ploy was muted because of the administration's public and private assurances that there would be no further bargaining with Libya. Nonetheless, the fear that negotiations would continue -- and that more concessions to the intransigent Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi would be made -- proved well-justified. The Clinton administration gave in. First, in a clear effort to insulate Qaddafi from criminal liability for the Pan Am 103 bombing, which many believe he personally ordered, the administration conceded that the prosecution of the alleged murderers would in no way "undermine" the Libyan regime. Second, the United States and the United Kingdom conceded that, if convicted and imprisoned, the defendants would be "monitored" by the United Nations. This implicit admission that Scottish jails are not up to, say, Libyan standards is breathtaking, both for its deference to the "proper" treatment of international terrorists, and as a precedent for intrusive U.N. involvement in our criminal justice system.

And yet, despite these signs of trouble, the victims' families and their supporters continued to hope that the tenth anniversary would mark a red line beyond which the president would retreat no further. Despite a typically well-staged and heart-tugging presidential performance on December 21, the supposed deadline came and went with the compromise proposal still on the table. This time, the president was even more emphatic: Libya had to accept the offer before February 26, the Security Council's next review of the limited economic sanctions against Libya, or much tougher sanctions would be imposed. Once again, the families of the victims and their sympathizers muted their criticisms, hoping the president would carry through on his tough rhetoric.

Now, February 26 has come and gone. The Libyans have not responded, except to demand further concessions. Economic sanctions against Libya have not been strengthened. And the defendants are still not in custody awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration's rhetoric gets even tougher, increasing the disparity between its words and its actions.

Sound familiar? During the past two weeks, the administration has followed precisely the same pattern over Kosovo.

First, a deadline, which Clinton himself endorsed, was set for Serbia to agree to the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Second, just hours before the deadline would have been reached, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to the negotiations in Rambouillet, France, and it was extended. Again, the administration's rhetoric got tougher. Third, on February 23, with the negotiations collapsing around them, the administration and its European colleagues agreed to an additional three-week extension. Characteristically, the postponement was declared a success, and the rhetoric threatening force continued at a high pitch.

There can be no dispute that the administration's record of unfulfilled threats to Serbia betrays the true intellectual and political poverty of its positions. Of course, exactly the same could be said of the threats the administration has issued to Qaddafi over Pan Am 103. And to Saddam Hussein, over weapons of mass destruction. And to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists still at large. And to the People's Republic of China, over a dozen pressing issues. And so forth.

But the result of the Clinton administration's fecklessness is not only significant harm to America in each of these cases. There is still another, global repercussion from the administration's incessantly repeated hollow threats: the catastrophic loss of U.S. credibility. And soon enough, this problem will have to be faced, not by President Clinton, but by his successor. Much as President Reagan had to convince the world, and especially our advertises, that the United States had not become terminally befuddled during the Carter years, so too will the next administration have to clean up the wreckage left by President Clinton -- a task that can only be accomplished by the effective pursuit of American interests. Aspiring presidential candidates should take note of the damage Clinton has done to U.S. credibility. The would do well to confront the issue in the coming months.

John R. Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. In the Bush administration, he served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

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