FOLLOWING a string of diplomatic successes, President Clinton secured a brief respite last fall from criticism that he was not up to the job of managing the nation's foreign policy. Now, a succession of new crises from Mexico to Russia, and the election of a Republican Congress, have put Mr. Clinton back in the soup.
Republican critics say the basic problems that dogged Clinton through his first two years in office have not changed much: inexperience, a weak foreign-policy team, and the absence of a coherent world view.
But there may be more involved in the range of crises that face the embattled president as he embarks on the second half of his term, diplomatic analysts say.
``What's happened is a combination of events - some that could have been anticipated and some that couldn't - that the US has been largely helpless to prevent,'' says one foreign-policy analyst in Washington who asked not to be named. ``Things like the Bosnian conflict and interethnic fighting within Russia - these are highly intractable problems over which the US has limited influence.''
Defending his foreign policy record, Clinton told Congress Tuesday that, for the first time since the start of the cold war, no Russian missiles were pointed at the United States.
In his State of the Union message, he reported that missiles and bombers carrying 9,000 nuclear warheads had been destroyed and urged lawmakers to approve pending strategic arms, chemical weapons, and comprehensive test-ban treaties. The administration, he said, will ``lead the charge'' to have the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty extended indefinitely at an upcoming review conference.
Clinton's most recent setback occurred two weeks ago when the Mexican government radically devalued the peso. Concerned about the effects on US investments and jobs, Mexico's stability, and immigration flows into the US, the administration rushed to Capitol Hill with a plan to provide $40 billion in loan guarantees to stabilize Mexico's currency.
But the effort to save Mexico could end up compromising one of Clinton's biggest foreign-policy successes, the North American Free Trade Agreement. As the price of support for the Mexican bailout, anti-NAFTA lawmakers from both parties are demanding conditions that could force Clinton to rewrite the agreement to include concessions to labor and environmental activists.
Another setback has been dealt by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose grisly war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya jeopardizes the administration's patient, largely successful policy of prodding Russia toward economic and political reform.
The Chechen fiasco could prove devastating to reform efforts and could make it harder for Clinton to fend off Republican moves in Congress to cut foreign aid to Russia and to speed the expansion of NATO.
To add to Clinton's troubles, a brief respite from bad news in Bosnia may now be over as well. A four-month cease-fire between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter, is now threatening to unravel, even as the US and other members of the Western ``contact group'' nations back away from their ``take-it-or-leave-it'' peace plan for the region in the face of Serbian intransigence.
Farther from home, a Clinton gamble on China has failed to pay off. Under pressure from US business leaders, Clinton agreed to stop holding China's most-favored-nation trading status with the US hostage to its performance on human rights.
Six months later, China's human rights violations and unfair trade practices are both as egregious as ever. The two countries are now near a trade war over Chinese piracy of US intellectual property, including books, compact discs, songs, and videos.
Even the Middle East peace process, which Clinton helped broker, is now under nearly unbearable pressure from Palestinian militants and Israeli settlers.
Yet Clinton has managed notable foreign-policy successes during his two years in office.
A combination of US diplomatic pressure and US troop deployments led to the peaceful restoration of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti.
Clinton's forceful advocacy, buttressed by the support of key Republicans, convinced Congress to ratify the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) last November.
Perhaps Clinton's biggest achievement, alluded to in his State of the Union message, has been to reduce the threat of nuclear war. He persuaded three former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus - to give up their nuclear weapons, and North Korea to freeze and eventually dismantle its program to develop nuclear arms.
Without Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in an address last week at Harvard University, ``we might now have four nuclear states in the former Soviet Union instead of one; a full-throated nuclear program in North Korea; no GATT agreement or NAFTA; brutal dictators still terrorizing Haiti; and very likely, Iraqi troops back in Kuwait.''
One of Clinton's main problems now will be dealing with a Republican Congress filled with presidential aspirants - like Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas - who are eager to make their own imprint on US foreign policy.
Senator Dole wasted no time stealing the march. On the first day of the new Congress, he dropped two bills into the Senate hopper, one that would limit US participation in UN peacekeeping operations, another - calling for an end to the UN arms embargo on Bosnia - that would completely reorient US policy toward the former Yugoslavia.
If enacted, the former would leave Clinton with the unwelcome options of dealing with more foreign crises on a unilateral basis or allowing them to burn out of control. The latter, according to many experts, could widen the Bosnian war and further strain US relations with NATO.
With Congress breathing down his back, Clinton will face a harder problem: convincing Americans that coherence in foreign policy may no longer be possible in a fragmented world.
Congress, ironically, could help him make his point.
On issues ranging from Korea to NAFTA to Bosnia, Republicans themselves are deeply divided.