THE midterm elections have created a paradox that could help define the two years remaining in President Clinton's term of office.
Mr. Clinton may be prompted by the election results to devote more of his time to foreign policy, since the domestic agenda will now be set by congressional Republicans. The latitude for action in the realm of foreign policy is likely to be circumscribed, however.
``The election means that anything the administration wants to do is going to be extremely hard,'' says one senior Senate source. ``In response, Clinton is likely to turn to areas of foreign policy where he won't need congressional authorization to operate, like prodding the Middle East peace process.''
Diplomatic analysts say one of Clinton's biggest problems will be the extent to which he is out of sync with the new Congress philosophically. Clinton's taste for multilateral diplomacy, his support for the United Nations, his interest in global issues like the environment and population, and his readiness to dispatch United States troops to places like Haiti are likely to put him at odds with GOP lawmakers.
``The new Congress will not be adverse to the use of force, per se, but only where there are big chips on the table, like Iraq,'' says a foreign-policy analyst who asked not to be identified. ``But when national interest is asserted in the name of `nationbuilding' or humanitarianism, that's where Clinton and Congress will part company.''
One test could come if and when Bosnian Serbs agree to a peace plan proposed by the Western powers. Clinton has pledged to support the peace with 25,000 US troops. A Republican Congress is unlikely to go along.
``Even if the Serbs signed on the bottom line, US troops would not be there to implement the agreement,'' the Senate source says.
Beyond the philosophical differences will be procedural bottlenecks that may be erected by the incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
As the ranking Republican on the committee, Mr. Helms has bedeviled the administration by blocking or delaying dozens of ambassadorial appointments. As chairman, he could turn even routine confirmation hearings into what the Senate source calls an ``inquisition'' against the administration.
Prospects for Senate ratification of three treaties - the Law of the Sea treaty, a biodiversity treaty agreed to at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and a treaty restricting the use of chemical weapons - have also dimmed in the wake of last week's Republican electoral landslide.
Burned by a less than successful mission in Somalia that was begun during the Bush administration, Clinton's appetite for foreign involvement has diminished somewhat. That could make for fewer tensions between the White House and Congress.
Even so, the administration is destined to feel the heavy hand of congressional oversight or outright opposition to fundamental policies it seeks to advance.
Clinton's recent deal to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions has alienated many conservative lawmakers, who will hold the president to strict account if North Korea shows any signs of backsliding.
The GOP's go-it-alone attitude could complicate dealings with NATO in Bosnia and central Europe, as well.
``Republicans have a kind of America-knows-best, do-what-we-tell-you-or-else attitude, and that's going to accentuate grave problems within the alliance,'' says one former Carter administration official.
Disagreements over NATO hint at a larger conflict of views. Republican lawmakers are likely to be far less charitable toward cooperating with any institutions they see as compromising US sovereignty or freedom of action. This could translate into even less US financial support for the UN - which Helms described as ``the nemesis of millions of Americans'' in a press conference last week - and multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank.
It could also jeopardize congressional ratification of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty, which the outgoing Congress will convene to discuss at the end of this month. At issue is the World Trade Organization (WTO) created by the treaty, which many Republicans say puts the US international trade policy in the hands of a world body.
The administration and Congress could be most at odds over the issue of foreign aid, which, Helms said last week, is ``going down rat holes'' in countries that oppose the US in the United Nations.
``Foreign aid is under full-scale assault,'' says Lawrence DiRita, deputy director of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
THE changeover in Congress comes just as the administration has begun to shift the focus of foreign aid to programs that deal with unsustainable development and rapid population growth in developing countries - problems the administration says contribute to instability in poor nations and regional tensions.
Yet Republican lawmakers will cut foreign aid and earmark most of what's left to underwrite free-market reforms in developing nations, GOP sources say.
Analysts say there are few potential gains for Clinton, even if he does turn more of his attention to foreign policy and even if he manages to carve out operating room with the new Congress.
``Because we don't face any central threat like we did during the cold war, foreign policy will help him less and potentially hurt him more,'' says the foreign-policy analyst. ``The gains when things go well, as in Haiti, will have less domestic payoff. But when things go sour, as they did in Somalia, the perception of incompetence will be magnified.''