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Clinton May Try to Become 'the Foreign Policy President' : Politics: GOP Congress will limit his domestic agenda, but aides are moving to enhance his presence on the global scene as '96 election nears.

November 11, 1994|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — It may sound like a strange reversal of the 1992 campaign, when candidate Bill Clinton excoriated then-President George Bush for paying too much attention to foreign affairs. But President Clinton's top aides have started laying the groundwork for him to seek reelection in 1996 as "the foreign policy President."

And after Democrats' staggering reverses at the polls Tuesday, a Clinton strategy of presenting himself as a foreign policy mastermind could fit the unpleasant political realities he now faces.

With the Democrats losing both the House and the Senate, the President's ability to maneuver on domestic matters has been curtailed, while his latitude for new initiatives on foreign policy survives almost intact.

Accordingly, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in the midst of a diplomatic trip to Asia, began airing themes that the President is expected to press during the next two years. Christopher spoke of "President Clinton's growing world leadership on the foreign policy front" and of his developing "personal relationships" with other heads of state--the latter a point that Bush never tired of making. The former President began forging those relationships as vice president under Ronald Reagan, who also developed close relationships with foreign leaders.

Traveling with Christopher, veteran political strategist--and Republican--David Gergen, the State Department counselor who has served as a top Clinton adviser, pointed out to reporters that Clinton will have spent more time abroad in 1994 than Bush did in an average year as President.

During the 1992 campaign, Clinton attacked Bush for spending too much time on foreign policy and not enough on domestic affairs. And during Clinton's first year in office, he openly acknowledged that he was concentrating on fixing the U.S. economy and delegating much of the foreign policy work to subordinates.

But now he finds himself in a situation painfully similar to that of Bush, who faced a Congress controlled by Democrats. Virtually anything Clinton does at home will require legislation or appropriations from a Republican-dominated Congress.

However, with the exception of formal treaties, much foreign policy activity can be carried out by the President without going to Congress. For instance, he can travel and conduct diplomacy on his own. And Administration sources said Clinton is contemplating a spring trip through as many as eight African countries.

"We have a lot more freedom because there is no party line on foreign policy issues . . ," said one State Department official traveling with Christopher.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--a foreign policy gadfly to presidents, Republicans as well as Democrats, for two decades--is in line to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

If Helms pursues his conservative agenda, he could make things more difficult for Clinton, especially by blocking the confirmation of new appointees. But if Clinton avoids major changes in the top-level staffing of the State Department and other agencies, he probably can get around any roadblocks that Helms chooses to build.

At a Wednesday press conference in North Carolina, Helms listed issues ranging from Cuba to the United Nations to the foreign aid budget that he said "are seriously out of whack." But Helms also said he wrote to Christopher pledging "to work with you in the spirit of mutual friendship and cooperation."

A Christopher aide maintained that the secretary of state has developed "a fairly close working relationship" with Helms during the last two years. He did not mention that there have also been some nasty skirmishes, including one public contretemps in which Christopher angrily accused Helms of impugning his integrity.

In the 48 hours after the election results came in, Christopher began making courtesy phone calls to Republican congressional leaders, including the chairmen of congressional committees dealing with foreign policy, Helms and Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), who is expected to become head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Despite the Administration's hopes for bipartisanship, the new Republican majority could make trouble for Clinton on the nuclear agreement he just signed with North Korea.

Some Republicans have already complained that Clinton gave too many benefits to the Pyongyang regime in exchange for halting its nuclear program. But the degree of Republican opposition to the North Korean agreement is not yet clear.

Administration officials insisted that other foreign policy issues, such as aid to Russia, enjoy roughly equal support from both Democrats and Republicans. Asked whether the President would have taken military action in Haiti if the new Congress had been in office last month, a State Department official quipped: "Everyone said there was a lack of congressional support under the old Congress."

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