CONGRESS is complaining more loudly about United States foreign policy than it has for years - perhaps more loudly than at any time since it battled with the Reagan White House over the Iran-contra affair in the late 1980s.
Part of the noise comes from Republicans who perceive a partisan advantage in pounding at what they believe to be a Clinton weak spot. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming devoted part of the GOP's May 21 response to President Clinton's weekly radio address to the subject, charging that a majority of Americans now disapprove of Clinton's handling of foreign policy.
But much restiveness is also evident in Mr. Clinton's own party. Liberals have called for a tougher line on Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as trade restrictions with China. And everyone on Capitol Hill seems full of advice about what US priorities should be in the confusing post-cold-war era.
``Anytime there is the appearance of a vacuum in foreign policy, Congress will move to try to fill it,'' says Stan Sloan, a senior international affairs analyst with the Congressional Research Service.
That does not mean Congress as a whole, or even the Senate or House alone, can easily unite behind coherent policies. Take the example of Bosnia. After months of criticizing Clinton for vague and inconsistent actions on the Balkans, senators tried to make a little Bosnia policy of their own on May 12. The result was confusion.
By one-vote margins the Senate passed two seemingly contradictory amendments. One would force the US to unilaterally lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims. The other simply urges the president to consult with US allies toward that same end. Asked to explain the import of the votes, Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas said it just means the White House ``better do something.''
Such expressions of frustration without specific prescriptives attached may be Congress's favorite means of dabbling in foreign affairs. ``Congress really loves to have it both ways on foreign policy,'' notes an aide to a key senator. ``[Lawmakers] want to be able to criticize but they don't want to step up to the plate themselves.''
Thus the White House is receiving clashing messages from Congress on a whole array of problems. Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, the powerful chair of the House Appropriations panel, has urged an invasion of Haiti, while many Republicans claim such a move would be a disaster. Liberals critical of Beijing's human rights policies call for withdrawal of China's most-favored-nation trading status with the US, while many other members worry about the effect such a move would have on business within their constituencies.
Of all recent US foreign actions the one Congress may have had the most effect on was the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. A congressional revolt over US casualties in that battered African nation is widely considered to have been a large factor in the Clinton administration's decision to withdraw US forces, despite the chance of renewed chaos.
`IT'S very difficult for Congress to ever take the lead on a foreign-policy matter. It's just not designed to do that,'' says Mickey Edwards, an eight-term Republican congressmen who now teaches a course on Congress and foreign affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
At the same time, nothing in the constitution gives the president hegemony over foreign affairs, Mr. Edwards says. ``The president therefore has an obligation to try to work cooperatively with Congress,'' says the former representative - himself a vociferous critic of Clinton's actions overseas.
When an administration is focused on a course of endeavor overseas, it is difficult for lawmakers to write any changes. Even when aspects of a focused policy are illegal, or at least questionable - as they were with Iran-contra - it can take some time for Congress to have any effect.
But when the problems are difficult and the administration is hesitant about what to do, lawmakers can make a difference.
``Very often Congress has the most effect when it realizes there are differences of view within the administration,'' says Frederick Holborn, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Thus the Senate's Bosnia vote, for all its contradictions, may in fact force the Clinton team's hand. Bosnia policy has so riven the State Department that a number of officials have resigned in protest over the US failure to take a tougher line.
Congress's problem right now is that it contains no stand-out foreign policy heavyweight, Mr. Holborn says. House Foreign Affairs panel chairman Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana is well-regarded but sounds unassuming. Senate Majority Leader Dole speaks out forcefully but has few foreign-affairs credentials. ``It's like listening to Henry Kissinger talk about economics,'' Holborn says.