FOREIGN policy has not been Bill Clinton's major interest. But ironically, his handling of crises in Haiti and Iraq is showing up as a new political asset.
Partly because of military action in Haiti, President Clinton's job approval rose from 41 percent in early September to 52 percent a month later, according to a new poll by the Wirthlin Group, a Republican firm.
Mr. Clinton has meanwhile drawn unaccustomed praise from foreign-policy experts for his response to the buildup of Iraqi troops along the Kuwait border. Iraq has since withdrawn most of its forces. And in Haiti, the US plan to restore democracy is moving ahead with the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide expected Saturday.
With congressional elections less than a month away, a rise in Clinton's public approval would weaken a Republican strategy to link Democratic candidates to an unpopular Clinton. ``It clearly removes a major drag'' on Democratic candidates, says Keith Frederick, Democratic campaign consultant.
The upward spike in Clinton's approval comes after a year of steady slippage. The Wirthlin poll and others showing lesser spikes were taken before his face-off with Iraq and the announcement that Haiti's military leaders were leaving the country this week. Both developments can be expected to boost Clinton's ratings.
Foreign-policy analysts give Clinton strong marks for his handling of the Iraq crisis but add caveats.
``He's placed a premium on speed in meeting the Iraq crisis and reacted impressively, sharply, quickly, and strongly,'' says Peter Rodman, a senior National Security Council and State Department official during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
But Mr. Rodman, who now heads the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Clinton's success in Iraq is reminiscent of President Ken-nedy's success during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In both cases, earlier miscalculations prompted adversaries to misjudge US resolve, contributing to the crises that produced the foreign- policy successes.
``Clinton does have to take some of the blame for giving [Saddam] the impression that this sort of thing might work,'' says Rodman. ``Clinton's so far doing the right thing in Iraq, but it's a success he's stumbled into.''
The Iraq crisis may also have handed a campaign issue to Republicans, who now charge that Clinton defense budget cuts have jeopardized the Pentagon's ability to deal with two major regional crises simultaneously - the standard for post-cold-war readiness set by the Bush administration.
As for Haiti, diplomatic analysts say, the real test of Clinton's foreign policy will come only when Mr. Aristide attempts to rebuild a political base in the face of entrenched opposition.
According to the Wirthlin poll, Clinton's approval ratings jumped between Sept. 6 (before he dispatched troops to Haiti) and Oct. 7 (after troops were dispatched but before Haitian leader Raoul Cedras resigned).
``He's getting a bounce off of the foreign-policy success he's had in Haiti,'' says Michael Dabadie, a senior political director with the Wirthlin Group.
The low public regard for the Clinton presidency is a key factor in House and Senate campaigns, where a possible shift in control of both chambers is at stake.
Some improvement in Clinton's popularity was inevitable after Congress went home,, says Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. The Democrats ``will win some races now by one or two points that they wouldn't have won a month ago,'' he says.
But he also says that Clinton will remain a major point of attack in campaigns, especially linking Democrats to such Clinton positions as tax hikes.
Because the improvement in Clinton's approval is based on events abroad, says Republican consultant Glen Bolger, whose firm is handling nearly three-dozen congressional campaigns, it will not figure as much in how voters concerned mostly with domestic issues choose House and Senate members.
``There's not enough time left for him'' to regain credibility on issues at home to benefit Democratic campaigns.
There is time, however, for the crises in Haiti or Iraq to take a turn for the worse and drag down Clinton's approval with them.
``You get points for competence if something's working,'' says political scientist Bruce Jentleson of the University of California at Davis. ``But it's tentative. It could turn bad easily.''