FRIDAY: It's War! No, Wait ...

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WASHINGTON: It's as if the President can't leave his bureaucrats alone for five minutes without a major international incident breaking out. Four days into Clintonís Latin America trip, the Federal Maritime Commissionís announcement that Japanese ships would be blockaded at U.S. ports over $4 million in unpaid harbor fines seemed to take everyone by surprise. Senior advisers were scrambling Friday to prevent a full-blown trade war by delaying the blockade until Saturday, or even later ó allowing time for the crisis to be defused by negotiation.

"Although the Maritime Agency has acted within its powers, from the administration's point of view it has the look of an unplanned event," says TIME correspondent Adam Zagorin. "I don't think the White House intended to have a major showdown with Japan over this.

"The U.S.-Japan trade relationship is strategically very important, and I don't think that either side will let it be threatened by a shipping dispute." The same may not be true for the tenure of the five Maritime Commission members when their five-year terms of office expire.