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Clinton's Foreign Policy Success May Rely on Making Peace With Congress

November 11, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Now that the election is over, what kind of foreign policy can we expect in President Clinton's second term?

All indications are that Clinton will push a handful of initiatives: Expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. High-level diplomacy with China. New trade agreements covering Latin America and China. Renewed efforts toward peace in the Middle East. And, finally, progress on such transnational issues as weapons proliferation and terrorism.

These are some of the goals that Clinton and some of his top foreign policy aides began to slip into their speeches in the last weeks of the campaign. The aim was to be able to claim a popular mandate after election day for the policies that they had talked about beforehand.

Whether he will succeed is far from certain. That will depend, to some extent, on whether the world remains as quiet and crisis-free as Clinton hopes. But it will also hinge to a considerable degree on whether the president can persuade Congress to support him in his dealings with the rest of the world.

During the last two years, Clinton has won only half of all congressional votes on issues involving foreign policy and national security, the lowest batting average for any president since the figures were first kept a half-century ago.

In last week's elections, virtually all the congressional opponents and nemeses of Clinton's foreign policies were returned to office along with the president.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) will still be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He will, no doubt, be prepared to challenge Clinton both on appointments and on attempts by the new administration to upgrade American relations with, say, China, Cuba or North Korea.

So too Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), a staunch supporter of Taiwan and of human rights in China, will return as chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Like Helms, he has often opposed central elements of administration foreign policy, from Haiti to Vietnam.

Most of the freshman Republicans who gave the last Congress a distinctly isolationist flavor, including Reps. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Steve Stockman of Texas, will be back as sophomores. When Clinton unveiled a financial package to help Mexico last year, Chenoweth said such presidential action would not be justified "short of the bombing at Pearl Harbor."

Nor can Clinton count on the Democratic side of Congress for unwavering support of his foreign policies. Ironically, on some issues, such as China, the president could find himself working more closely with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) than with the House Democratic leadership.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, strong allies of organized labor, stand ready to oppose any trade agreements that they think would harm the interests of American workers.

"There are the makings of more confrontation on foreign policy than people realize," said Jeremy Rosner of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Right now, people seem to be focused on how the Republicans feel chastened by the repudiation of their views over the last two years on domestic issues. But on foreign policy, there's a substantial possibility for things to get pretty testy."

During the next couple of years, the Senate will take on heightened importance for foreign policy because it has the sole power to pass on both nominations and treaties.

Some of Clinton's top foreign policy objectives will be put in the form of treaties that have to be endorsed by the Senate. These include the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Treaty and, most important of all, the expansion of NATO.

And the Senate will be much tougher for Clinton in the next Congress. Some of its moderate voices and experienced hands on foreign policy issues--Democrats Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Sam Nunn of Georgia, Republicans Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and William S. Cohen of Maine--will be gone. Without them, the new Senate will be more Republican, more conservative and, probably, more willing to challenge the president.

Predicting how Clinton will fare during the next four years depends on what historical precedent you use. Will the foreign policy of Clinton's next four years be more like that of the second term of Reagan or Wilson or Nixon?

Reagan, like Clinton, was a former governor who came to the White House preoccupied with domestic economic issues. His record on foreign policy during his first term was, at best, erratic.

Yet during his second term, Reagan moved determinedly, and with some political risk, toward the arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union that paved the way for the end of the Cold War. They were a lasting achievement. (On the other hand, Reagan ignored and flouted congressional opposition to his Nicaragua policy, opening the way for the Iran-Contra scandal.)

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