Is Republican Congress really isolationist?

Clinton, GOP fight over US role in world, stymieing cooperation on

The White House has a word for Republicans on Capitol Hill - "isolationists."

Stung by their recent loss on the nuclear test-ban treaty, White House officials have lashed out with the "I" word at the GOP on a range of policy issues.

They blame Republicans for whacking $2 billion out of President Clinton's foreign-aid plans, for crimping efforts to get rid of Russian nuclear weapons, and for failing to show stronger support for curbing global warming.

The administration has bandied about the isolationist charge for two weeks, and the name-calling is having predictable results.

"Clinton's politicizing foreign policy," says Gary Hoitsma, spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma. "He seems to be in a mood to polarize with this harsh rhetoric and use buzz words like isolationism."

But even some Democrats have doubts about recent White House rhetoric. Lee Hamilton, a Democratic stalwart on foreign policy when he served as chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, takes issue with the isolationist accusation.

"The administration suggests the Republicans don't want the US to be a leader in the world, and that's not an accurate characterization," he says. "They want [a country] much less dependent on international agreements and institutions, and much more prepared to act by itself."

Mr. Hamilton, who currently directs the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says a term that more accurately describes Republicans is "unilateralists." "They always want to go it alone, and have a skepticism of world bodies."

While the campaign to paint Republicans as isolationists is transmitting the administration's frustration to the outside world, it may also be closing the door on any further foreign-policy cooperation - particularly from Senate Republicans - for the balance of Mr. Clinton's term in office.

Recent accusations

*In vetoing the Republicans' scaled-down $12.6 billion foreign-aid bill, Clinton described it as "the next big chapter in the new American isolationism."

*Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the claim this week as she wrapped up her trip to Africa.

*And in a recent speech, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger outlined the administration's anger over at least half a dozen key policy issues, from the recently defeated Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to congressional failure to pay the dues the US owes the United Nations.

"It's tempting to say that the isolationist right in the Congress has no foreign policy, that it is driven only by partisanship. But that underestimates it," Mr. Berger said. "This year, Congress has cut our request for peacekeeping by more than half."

The White House claims the US legacy of an internationalist consensus is being supplanted by a brand of neoisolationism that will, at minimum, diminish the US role in the world. At most, it will encourage despotic regimes to engage in a litany of malfeasance, the White House believes.

There is nothing wrong, say White House officials, with taking the foreign-policy discussion public.

"The reality is, this debate is going on and it's important for the American people to engage in that," says David Leavy, spokes-man for the National Security Council. "It's not attacking. It's an honest and straightforward debate on policy."

But the rancorous tone and public nature of the debate could be sending the wrong signals around the world, weakening US posture.

"This really foul-tempered mood between the White House and Congress is going to foul any treaty or agreement," says Ruth Wedgewood of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. "I don't see it ending anytime soon...."

GOP refutes claim

But Republicans refute the isolationist claims citing their continued support of NATO expansion and free-trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

As for the nuclear test-ban treaty, opponents say it failed because there was simply no way to adequately verify compliance by other nations.

On lagging payments to the United Nations, conservatives are opposed to UN supported programs that provide abortion services in developing countries. The US is currently more than a billion dollars behind in member dues.

More than $2 billion worth of foreign aid and assistance to other countries sought by the Clinton administration has been denied. It covered a wide range of programs - from financial support of the Middle East peace process to assisting the former Soviet Union with disposing of nuclear materials.

In denying the funding, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois claimed the administration's plan would dip into the Social Security fund.

Limited support

Some Republicans have expressed frustration with what they see as a White House that is attempting to transform foreign-policy disagreements into political points, while failing to acknowledge the support the GOP has given Clinton.

"The Kyoto global-warming treaty is a prime example," explains a Senate staff member, who is currently serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. "The Senate told the White House it's not ratifiable.... Even some Democrats don't agree with the science."

But even with all the political name-calling, "By and large ... [Republicans] have supported [President Clinton] in Kosovo and Iraq," says Michael Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who served in the Reagan administration.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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