US foreign agenda grinds to halt

Clinton-Congress bickering has stalled central overseas initiatives, may ultimately hurt America's image abroad.

No foreign policy is safe anymore.

In an age of unprecedented hostility between Congress and the president, the Clinton administration is finding that some of its most-crucial overseas initiatives are getting caught in the net of partisan politics.

The latest example: a $13 billion emergency spending bill for, among other things, fighting drugs in Colombia and keeping peace in Kosovo. Both Colombia and Kosovo are considered key elements of the administration's foreign policy, yet Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) this week called the funding package "bloated" and said he would not consider it for passage.

Other significant initiatives have already fallen, and more may wither in the remaining nine months of the Clinton presidency.

The result is that the White House has less influence in the international arena, whether it be in funding a peace agreement, or getting other countries to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for nuclear weapons, which the Senate rejected last year.

"The [office of the] president hasn't had this much trouble since the mid-'70s," says James Lindsay, who follows Congress and foreign affairs for the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Analysts say President Clinton is partially to blame for his inability to get legislators to approve his foreign policy. He came to office on the strength of domestic issues, and at times has lacked focus beyond US borders. Monica Lewinsky didn't help.

But his time in history also comes into play. Without an enemy like the Soviet Union, individual Congress members are less likely to feel patriotic and support a presidential initiative. And voters rarely get riled up about foreign affairs like they once did. In the '80s, the public cared about nuclear proliferation. Today, the din over Elian Gonzalez is the result of small but effective lobbying campaigns, not grass-roots political sentiment.

Even if a disputed measure is eventually approved - as some predict the Colombia-Kosovo package will be - there may be lasting damage to how the US is perceived abroad.

Other countries are becoming wary of the world's only superpower, which from afar seems to act arbitrarily. They cannot understand how the president can sign a treaty just to have it voided by the legislature.

"I firmly believe that any action to delay consideration of these pressing needs would impose unnecessary cost to Americans at home, to our interests abroad, and to our military readiness around the world," Clinton said this week in a statement, after the emergency measure stalled.

Besides CTBT, Clinton has struggled with Congress over dues to the United Nations, a bill to control greenhouse gases, and funding for the 1998 Wye River peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While Congress has the right to control how government spends money, some analysts are concerned that serious issues are becoming tools for exacting political revenge.

In the case of the $13 billion emergency spending bill, Republicans say they support the individual items, such as Kosovo and Colombia, but oppose how the measure grew on its path from the White House to the Senate.

"It threatens to grow to $22 billion," says John Czwartacki, a spokesman for the Senate majority leader's office. "It's large because it is outside the regular [appropriations process]."

But Patrick Cronin, director of research at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, says these internal political disputes affect the rest of the world. "It's sad that the rest of the world gets held up by American politics," he says.

The biggest issue of them all is still to come. Clinton wants Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with China, a move that is considered a crucial step for China to join the World Trade Organization. The issue is already one of the most politicized disputes in Washington, and the target of massive lobbying campaigns.

According to John Hulsman, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation here, much of the bickering between Congress and the White House has to do with power and money. Nevertheless, he says it's a healthy balance of power, such as the Founding Fathers may have envisioned.

"The cold war [when Congress was far more supportive of the president's foreign policy] was an aberration," he says.

Mr. Hulsman predicts that the next president - be he Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore - will face similar challenges from an unruly Congress.

"If I had advice for the new president, I would tell him to use the bully pulpit," he says. "It's one power Congress can't take away."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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