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A Large Target

THE various fights this week between the White House and Congress over the president's prerogative to use military force are as serious as any Bill Clinton faces. We hope he fends off the attacks - but heeds the warning they send.

The issue cuts to the president's ability to conduct American foreign policy. Sen. Robert Dole, organizing an effort to handcuff Clinton, is one of few internationalists on Capitol Hill; he knows the damage his attack can do to the president's leadership. Mr. Dole last week saved Clinton on Somalia by getting Senate approval to keep US forces in that country until March 31. That was a bipartisan step. His new amendments are another matter. They require congressional approval to send troops to Haiti or Bosnia. There may be reasons not to commit troops. But to neutralize presidential power by limiting Clinton's actions can harm American interests. Dole should back off.

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Having said this, we fault Clinton for offering such a large target. The problem is not Dole; it is Clinton's foreign policy. George Bush allowed crises in Haiti and Bosnia to grow. But for nine months the Clinton team has had no clear foreign policy. It ceded crucial decisions to the United Nations. It allowed the Pentagon, not the State Department, to set policy. It reversed itself again and again on Bosnia and Somalia. Tuesday a Democrat in Congress called for the resignation of Secretary of State Christopher.

Clinton has not called Americans to any higher purposes to which power should be used. His forays into ``peacekeeping'' have lacked definition and have cost him support. Many in Congress now say US power should only be used for reasons of ``national security.'' This is a recipe for a US withdrawal from the world.

Assumptions to reevaluate:

First, ``multilateralism.'' The cold war may be over. But it has not been replaced by an international consensus on which the US can rely in areas of justice, human rights, and democracy.

Second, the primacy of negotiation. While diplomacy remains important, the limitations of negotiated settlements can be seen in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. (Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras had no real intention of keeping the Governors Island Accord.)

Third, the virtue of UN neutrality. Local thugs and nationalists exploit this neutrality. UN peacekeepers, for example, have done nothing in the middle of a genocide in Bosnia.

Finally, basing policy on approval ratings. Public support is crucial. But foreign policy can't be made via polls. Foreign policy is a vigil - often thankless. If Truman had relied on popular opinion there would have been no Marshall Plan, no Berlin Airlift.

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The crises in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia are each different. None is an immediate threat. But failure to handle them with more clarity of purpose can only erode Clinton effectiveness.

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