FOR a president who promised to focus on domestic problems, Bill Clinton seems to be spending a lot of time on foreign policy. Maybe in 1996 his campaign slogan will be: ``It's the economy - providing that North Korea has agreed to international nuclear inspections, Boris Yeltsin has held Russia's nationalist tendencies in check, and Israeli-PLO modalities are on track - stupid.''
Other recent occupants of the Oval Office have faced more difficult individual overseas crises, such as the Gulf war. But the number and interaction of current foreign problems seems to be adding up to a time of unprecedented White House difficulty. Things just keep coming, like bad trolls popping out of the snow at the Winter Olympics:
* The Hebron mosque massacre has thrown United-States-sponsored Mideast peace talks off track. Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent much of Feb. 28 on the phone with Arab leaders, trying to make sure that their withdrawal from negotiations will be temporary and will not end Palestine Liberation Organization-Israeli attempts to implement Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank and Gaza.
* The Ames spy case sent a cold-war chill across Capitol Hill. While the Cuban Missile Crisis has not returned, the arrest of a Central Intelligence Agency official for spying has provided a perfect pretext for legislators already leery of continued aid to a Russia that appears increasingly nationalistic.
* North Korea has finally allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit its declared nuclear sites - probably. Inspections were to begin March 1, but the IAEA has said they will take two weeks, and North Koreans have proved masters of delay and retreat. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues to deny access to sites the West suspects are clandestine nuclear-waste dumps.
* NATO has taken a step down the road of military involvement in Bosnia by downing Bosnian Serb aircraft deemed in violation of a declared no-fly zone. President Clinton huddled with British Prime Minister John Major on Feb. 28 to discuss further measures for the Balkans, with extension of NATO ultimatums from Sarajevo to other besieged Muslim cities a possibility.
Previous post-World War II presidents looked at all foreign problems through the set paradigm of the cold war. Such guidelines no longer exist.
In fact, the fall of the Iron Curtain may make it impossible for Clinton to fulfill his vision of a presidency that focuses on a domestic agenda. The reason, argues an article in the new issue of Foreign Policy, is that not only foreign policy but also domestic politics has been changed forever.
``The future holds not a return to some mythical halcyon normalcy but a divisive struggle over the basic principles of the American political and economic order,'' argue University of Pennsylvania professors G. John Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney.
That's because the absence of a strong external threat will shatter US political consensus and erode the power of the government in all areas, write Drs. Ikenberry and Deudney. No longer perceived as the leaders of the West against communism, US presidents will find their stature lowered and ability to sway opinion circumscribed. The justification for US government subsidies to science and industrial development will weaken. The end of cold-war constraint will erode the nation's identity of itself, making class and ethnic differences more important.
Ironically, many post-cold-war presidents may turn to foreign affairs as an area in which they can operate with relative freedom ``however strong their aspirations to focus on domestic policy,'' write Ikenberry and Deudney. ``Only there can a president operate as a national leader and spokesperson.''