Two wars? US debates its reach

With NATO near to an attack on Yugoslavia, US foreign policy moves tothe partisan foreground.

If NATO launches a bombing attack on Yugoslavia, the United States will be fighting two simultaneous conflicts for the first time since World War II.

In addition to the low-level air war the US has been waging for months over Iraq, US ships and planes have been awaiting only the last-ditch mission to Belgrade yesterday by US envoy Richard Holbrooke before launching strikes on Serb forces.

As if emerging from the fog of distractions, from the impeachment scandal to the soaring Dow, international security is now dominating political attention as at no other time since the end of the cold war.

NATO intervention in Kosovo, building a missile-defense system, and alleged Chinese nuclear espionage have become the most intense political debates in town.

They don't connect directly to the workaday lives of most Americans, but they are controversial and taking on an increasingly partisan edge.

"We've had a fairly steady stream of foreign policy problems that are serious and difficult to deal with," notes Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana who served as chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "They have captured the attention of the administration."

These issues have also cap-tured the attention of the GOP majority on Capitol Hill.

Having failed to convict Clinton and hard put to assail his fiscal policies, Republicans are taking aim at his handling of foreign and security policies in a bid to find chinks in Democratic defenses in the run-up to next year's elections.

Says a GOP congressional staffer: "We will continue to pursue policy issues that need to be pursued because we believe that good policy makes good politics."

What bothers the GOP

At the core of the GOP's attacks are contentions that Clinton is inattentive to foreign affairs and has compromised the nation's security by pursuing policies that overaccommodate other states at the expense of those of the United States.

They criticize as insufficient his approach to developing defenses against missile attacks, his policies toward the dictatorships in Iraq and North Korea as weak, and they blame him for the military's readiness and recruitment problems.

They also take aim at what they say are a lack of an "exit strategy" in the Balkans and Clinton's refusal to get tough with Moscow over alleged aid to Iranian nuclear and conventional weapons programs. And they question whether illicit contributions to his 1996 campaign allegedly funneled by Beijing influenced his decision to loosen controls on technologies sought by the Chinese military.

Most recently, Republicans have seized on China's alleged theft of nuclear weapons secrets from the Los Alamos atomic weapons laboratory in the 1980s.

GOP lawmakers say Clinton compromised US security by failing to take prompt action after the purported theft was discovered in 1995 to avoid damaging his policy of economic, scientific, and political "engagement" with Beijing.

Yet just how much his critics will profit from such tactics remains to be seen, especially at a time of US economic and military preeminence.

While polls still give them higher marks than Democrats in foreign affairs, Republicans are divided over the role the US should play in the post-cold-war world.

Moderates agree with Clinton that it must remain a major force in international affairs; the far right argues that the US has become overextended in foreign commitments, such as the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.

Furthermore, Clinton enjoys public support for his foreign policy, according to a poll released last week by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. It found that 55 percent of Americans rate his handling of foreign affairs as excellent or good, compared to just 30 percent in 1994.

There is also near-unanimous agreement that the domestic political tide will remain driven more by issues like Social Security, Medicaid, crime, and education than by foreign and security policies.

"Candidates will talk about it, but foreign policy is never a decisive issue in elections," says Bruce Jackson, a Republican who heads the US Committee on NATO, a bipartisan group that advocates maintaining the transatlantic alliance. "But it is certainly something that candidates should expect to be conversant in."

In fact, he and others believe that given all the new attention, foreign and security policy questions could have more influence on next year's elections than in any held since the collapse of the Soviet threat.

Democrats jump over

In a possible indication of this, all but three Senate Democrats last week switched positions on a bill requiring deployment of a national missile defense system, joining the GOP in passing it despite persisting doubts that the technological hurdles will ever be overcome.

Should the US suffer any losses in Iraq or the possible NATO intervention in Kosovo, foreign policies could have an even greater impact on domestic discourse about the nation's place in the world, experts say.

"It would certainly change the equation," says Mr. Hamilton. "There is nothing like the loss of American life to engage the attention of the American people."

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