WASHINGTON — CONGRESS may not be composed of 535 secretaries of state, after all. President Clinton appears to have escaped with few overt restrictions from days of confrontation with Capitol Hill over his authority to send United States troops into harm's way.
But that does not mean that proposals to legislate curbs on US deployments to Haiti or Bosnia have had no effect. The message the debate sent was loud and clear: Many lawmakers think the Clinton foreign policy team has been too willing to embrace the role of global peacekeeping cop.
This message has had real influence on policy. In Somalia, the US has abandoned a militarily aggressive strategy for one of hunkering down and promising to get out. US troops were pulled back quickly from Haiti's shores. Despite tough talk, the administration appears unwilling to fight to put ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in power.
Other factors have influenced the administration's new world hesitancy. But Congress has clearly captured Mr. Clinton's foreign policy attention.
``We have a good example here of the tension between branches of US government,'' says Maurice East, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University here. ``It's tension that is working its way out in what I think is a healthy direction.''
On Wednesday, the most serious challenge to presidential prerogatives abated when Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas agreed to tone down his proposed legislation calling for Congress to approve, in advance, deployment of troops to Haiti and Bosnia.
Senator Dole agreed to make his proposed amendment to the 1994 defense spending bill a nonbinding, sense-of-the-Senate resolution. He also agreed that no limitations would occur if Clinton certified in advance that US national interests were at stake and submitted a report on deployment details.
On Wednesday, the Senate also approved 99 to 1 another nonbinding resolution calling for prior congressional authorization for any US action in Bosnia. Senate votes on Dole's proposal and a more-limiting version proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina were to be taken yesterday.
Dole denied that his role in the whole effort was to outfit Clinton with a foreign policy straitjacket. ``I don't believe we should tie the president's hands, but I don't believe Congress should sit on its hands either,'' he said Wednesday.
The prospect of the Senate attempting to legislate foreign policy had drawn wide attention in Washington and criticism from traditional foreign policy experts. President Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, backed Clinton's prerogatives, writing in a Washington Post opinion article that managing new world problems requires ``the agility of a ballet dancer, not the Mack truck of legislation.''
While saying that the foreign policy dialogue between Congress and the White House is healthy, Dr. East agrees that strict congressional limits could lead to problems.
``If legislation gets too heavily involved in foreign policy, we could have not only a constitutional crisis but a policy debacle of the highest order,'' he says.
Congress was moved to act, he says, because the administration has lacked an intense and high-profile foreign policy leader, whether that be the president himself or an appointed official with the stature of, say, a Henry Kissinger.
Not everyone is saying that Congress should just make noise and back down, however. The old argument that the stakes in foreign policy require a president with the flexiblity to act alone just does not hold for Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti, insists Alan Tonelson, a senior analyst at the Economic Strategy Institute who writes widely on foreign policy issues.
For the US, ``these foreign policy problems are not too important,'' he says. ``I don't see why, in low-stakes situations like these, Clinton shouldn't be forced to answer questions and specify US national interests.''
THE permanent crisis of the cold war caused Congress to develop a habit of deferring to presidential authority, Mr. Tonelson says. But he says he sees no real US interests in establishing order in Somalia or Haiti - even though Haiti is only a few hundred miles from US shores.
If a new flood of Haitian boat people approaches US shores, the US should either intercept them or change the law so that illegal immigrants do not receive social benefits, such as access to public schools, Tonelson says.
``This is a problem of American immigration policy. We can't trap ourselves into thinking that unless we rebuild every third world society we will be flooded with newcomers we can't handle,'' he adds.