GOP Seeks Clearer Foreign-Policy Path

Republicans snipe at Clinton, but lack own global plan

REPUBLICANS may define the domestic agenda in Washington, but their foreign policy is still a work in progress.

Criticism of President Clinton's overseas actions comes easily to GOP strategists, and they feel they are closer to the public's attitudes about international affairs than Democrats. But as for the hard part -- defining a coherent foreign policy of their own -- the task has just begun.

As yet, ''there really is no neo-Reaganite foreign policy,'' acknowledges William Kristol, chairman of the Project for a Republican Future. He was one of four Republican strategists speaking at a forum in Washington sponsored by Freedom House, a human rights group in New York.

Republicans remain divided over such issues as how to respond to the Bosnian civil war and whether to tighten or loosen sanctions on Fidel Castro's Cuba.

And like Democrats, Republicans sometimes work at cross purposes, advocating, for example, a stronger NATO even as they press for lifting a United Nations arms embargo on Bosnia -- a policy certain to create deep divisions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Moreover, Republican policy is still largely defined in response to the perceived failures of the Clinton administration.

Out of the peanut gallery

At the heart of the GOP critique is what Mr. Kristol calls Clinton's ''mushy, UN-centered multilateral foreign policy'' that, GOP strategists charge, has limited the ability of the US to act unilaterally to defend its interests abroad.

In Haiti, for example, the administration secured UN approval before sending in troops to restore the country's democratically-elected government, a move judged essential by President Clinton to stemming refugee flows into the US.

''We have a right to assert our own national interests,'' says Peter Rodman, a high-level foreign policy advisor in four Republican administrations, of Mr. Clinton's performance in Haiti.

''The US national interest does not require moral validation by the UN,'' Mr. Rodman says.

Republicans also complain about the Clinton administration's ''Russia first'' policy, which has focused on shoring up Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

And they say the foreign aid budget is too big, with too much of it devoted to issues like rapid population growth and environmental degradation in developing countries that, they say, bear only indirectly on US national interests.

Behind the critique are at least three themes that are likely to be found in the play-book of every Republican presidential aspirant:

r The US should cut foreign aid and focus what remains on regions where US interests are directly on the line: the Middle East and central Europe.

r The US should work with the UN where convenient, act unilaterally when necessary, and drop constraints on the use of US military power.

r The US should make preserving the balance of power in Europe its number one priority and take a more realistic view of Russia that accounts for its historic proclivity to expand beyond its borders.

''We look at Russia as a reemerging power that needs to be hedged against, not just an adolescent democracy that needs to be indulged,'' says Rodman, who is now director of national security programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a Republican think-tank based in Washington.

He says the US should signal Russian nationalists that central Europe is forever off limits by bringing the newly independent states in the region under the umbrella of NATO as quickly as possible.

''The more you leave ambiguity, the more you invite revisionist temptations in Russia,'' says Rodman.

Clinton not a failure

Not all diplomatic analysts give the Clinton administration a bad rap. Mr. Clinton has been credited with a strong economic foreign policy, crowned by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and GATT treaties.

US policies toward Haiti, the Middle East, and Russia have also won praise in many quarters, as has the administration's role in convincing three former Soviet republics -- Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus -- to denuclearize.

The importance of containing the spread of nuclear weapons is one goal both parties agree on.

Paradoxically, they are alike in one other respect. In an era when the US faces no major threat, when national interests are harder to define, and when thorny problems like Bosnia abound, neither has managed to define the kind of broad themes the public yearns for.

''There's no genuine overarching theory [of foreign policy] at this point, nor should there be,'' says John Bolton, president of the National Policy Forum in Washington.

''And there's no point pretending there are clear answers to issues like Bosnia.''

Absent such a theory, says Mr. Kristol, ''you're not going to have debates about principle, you're going to have disputes about prudential judgment'' on specific issues and which party has more competence to deal with them.

''That's the way the new foreign policy will emerge: from a series of specific analyses of specific threats to specific American interests,'' Mr. Bolton says. ''That's the process going on now.''

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