PRESIDENT Clinton has now learned the hard way something ex-President Bush already knew: Foreign policy success does not necessarily translate into political advantage at home.
In recent months, Mr. Clinton has managed to restore an elected president to Haiti, face down Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and preside over a historic Israeli-Jordanian peace accord. But these foreign victories apparently meant little to United States voters convinced that the federal government is bloated and out of touch and that change of some sort is needed.
Ironically, one result of sweeping Republican gains might be a president more active in overseas affairs. White House strategists have quietly floated this scenario as one way of maintaining presidential activism in the face of a Republican Congress opposed to much of Clinton's domestic agenda.
Such an approach did not help George Bush fend off his own reelection defeat. But at least foreign policy is an area where presidents can operate with relative freedom. Clinton could demonstrate that despite the Democrats' midterm debacle, he is forging ahead on one big aspect of the nation's business.
In an address to South Korean businessmen, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that despite the election outcome, continuity in US foreign policy would continue. ``We will remain strong and steadfast in our commitments around the world,'' he told his audience.
Still, Republican control of the House and Senate will now put some constraints on the president's foreign-policy style. First among these limits will be Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who is likely to inherit the mantle of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.
The conservative Senator Helms has been an outspoken critic of many of the foreign policies of presidents both Democratic and Republican for years. He is certain to carefully scrutinize further US involvement in Haiti, among other things.
Both Helms and Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, expected to be the Senate majority leader in the next Congress, have indicated that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott should receive no more promotions. Mr. Talbott used to be mentioned as a possible candidate for the State Department's top slot if Secretary Christopher leaves; lately Talbott has been rumored to be in line to replace Anthony Lake as Clinton's national security adviser.
North Korea might be another Clinton-Helms flash point. Some Senate Republicans have criticized the recent US-North Korea nuclear pact as a sellout, and they attempted to gain some congressional authority over any US aid sent to the repressive Pyongyang regime.
The Clinton White House also may now face increased restiveness from lawmakers over Bosnia. Senator Dole has been one of the leaders of the push to get the US unilaterally to begin selling arms to the embattled Bosnian Muslims. Clinton administration officials worry that such a move would spark a wider war and increase tensions with US allies such as Britain that oppose lifting the weapons embargo.
With the midterm elections over, the Clinton foreign-policy team may itself be in for a shakeup. Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey is the latest member of the team rumored to be on his way out, perhaps within days.
Though Christopher has often been criticized, his position is now thought to be safe. But Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the United Nations, seems to have been subtly campaigning for the Foggy Bottom job in recent weeks.