Congress vs. President On US Foreign Policy

Lawmakers challenge troop commitments

THE headline above this story was as valid 200 years ago as it is today, but that makes life no easier for President Clinton, who still hasn't hit his stride as commander in chief.

In fact, even though a few things have gone right for Mr. Clinton in recent days - Somali captors released Army helicopter pilot Michael Durant and the Senate endorsed Clinton's revised game plan for Somalia - he has still looked like a sacked quarterback with members of both teams (and some spectators, too) piling on top of him. ``The only difference here is there's no referee to blow the whistle,'' says William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

The piling on continued Oct. 19 as the Senate considered the defense appropriations bill and amendments that would limit Clinton's ability to send United States troops to Haiti, which is preparing for the scheduled return Oct. 30 of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

An amendment by Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas would limit the use of funds for military operations in Haiti without advance authorization from Congress. Another amendment, sponsored by Sens. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma and Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, would require that US troops in a United Nations operation serve only under US command.

US warships are positioned off the coast of Haiti. Not too far down the road, Congress will also consider sending US troops on a peacekeeping mission to Bosnia.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher complained Oct. 18 that ``any provision which preconditions the ability of the president to use the armed forces is offensive to the Constitution.''

But that hasn't stopped even Clinton's staunchest foreign policy allies on the Hill from weighing in with at least gentle criticism of his handling of crises in Somalia and Haiti. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has chided the Clinton team for not articulating a post-cold-war foreign policy.

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, couches his criticism by blaming Congress as well. ``The difficulties in Somalia really come down to our failure - the president's failure and Congress's failure - to define what the policy was and articulate it effectively, consistently, and strongly,'' he said in an interview.

Although the American public is in no mood to send its young men and women off on foreign adventures, it is ``inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt,'' Representative Hamilton continued. But the president must make his case. ``You're asking people to do something they don't see a need to do, so it takes not just a definition of policy but an articulation of what the interest is,'' Hamilton said.

That's not easy do, however, because Clinton will have the distinction of being the first president to serve his entire term in the post-cold-war era.

``When the [Berlin] Wall came down, American foreign policy could never be the same again, because the president's power had rested in the sense of permanent crisis,'' says Foreign Policy editor Maynes.

Before, it was easy to articulate a goal: Defeat communism. ``Now, Clinton needs a geopolitical benchmark to help structure the debate,'' Maynes says. ``His leadership in foreign affairs will depend on his political skills and his ability to mold opinion.''

This, by definition, will require more consensus-building with Congress than cold-war-era presidents had to engage in.

Clinton's presidency also marks the return to executive-branch power of the Democrats for the first time in 12 years. During those years out of power, the party's foreign policy thinkers had time to theorize about, but not to practice, their trade. This may have contributed to some of the administration's initial stumbling, says an aide to a conservative Democratic senator.

As the president seeks to spell out a foreign policy, Hamilton urges the administration to back collective security - through the UN, NATO, and other organizations - as the only realistic way the US can afford to advance its interests around the globe ``at a price American public opinion is prepared to support.''

The US, Hamilton added, should foster greater trust with foreign military partners and help the UN improve its military capabilities. And if US troops are to serve in a combat mission, they should serve only under US command.

Regarding Congress's role, Hamilton suggests the establishment of a ``consultative group'' consisting of key House and Senate members that would meet regularly with the president on national-security issues. In addition, he says, Congress should authorize any deployment of US troops where hostilities are imminent. That way, he says, ``the president and Congress share the blame if things go wrong.''

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