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Splits Heard Round the World

TODAY'S American politics are on global display. Two recent incidents demonstrate dramatically to leaders abroad the deep fault lines in the Washington debate over foreign policy.

At the recent Halifax summit President Clinton was required to acknowledge that he could not commit to financing a new United Nations rapid reaction force in Bosnia because of congressional opposition.

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A few days earlier, at a banquet in Beijing, United States Ambassador Stapleton Roy took public issue with the statement of a visiting US congressman that congressional pressures had not played a role in forcing the administration to grant a visa to President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan.

These incidents by no means represent the only occasions in which congressional constraints and pressures on the Clinton administration are in the public eye. Representatives of Israel's Likud Party are pressing Congress to balk at US involvement in a peace agreement with Syria. Bosnian Muslims have found sympathetic ears in the US Senate for lifting the arms embargo, despite administration opposition. Developments in either case could bring more evidence of the current US political struggles.

Exhibitions of policy differences are not new. The elites of the world are aware of such currents through CNN and American publications overseas. Neither is the phenomenon of members of Congress giving contrary signals abroad unusual. As ambassador to the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos regime, I encouraged visiting members of Congress to make the same critical statements on human rights to Marcos and others in Manila that they were making on Capitol Hill. They declined, saying they felt the need to be "polite." The result was doubt in the Philippines as to the reality of Washington's pressures for human rights improvement.

Recent displays of differences between the Clinton administration and Congress are, however, clear indications of the divisions now existing as the country debates its post-cold-war directions. The new lineup in Congress following the 1994 elections makes such displays inevitable.

Each of these debates raises questions regarding the fundamental direction of US foreign policy. Will the US continue to use its resources in a global leadership role or will it, through a narrow definition of national interest, become less and less involved? Will it turn its back on the United Nations which it helped to form, choosing instead a unilateralism that will create tensions with allies and foes alike? The issues are real, and the world is watching because other nations see their future inextricably linked with that of the US.

Those espousing a cause contrary to administration policy raise hopes - not necessarily realistic - that Congress will prevail. Doubts are raised about the direction and steadfastness of US leadership.

At times in the past, executive branch officials have debated the degree to which constraints on policy should be publicly blamed on congressional resistance or pressure. Presidents have generally felt, however, that to do so would suggest they were not in charge. Yet, in circumstances such as today's, a president may have little choice.

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The worldwide airing of Washington policy differences is inevitable. Many members of Congress, aware of their responsibilities as legislators traveling abroad, will exercise restraint on foreign soil. They will seek to explain policy debates for foreign audiences without taking a strong partisan line. Others, conscious that constituents and party colleagues are listening, continue the political debate wherever they are. This is not likely to change. It was once a Washington maxim that politics stopped at the water's edge. This is no longer the case, and the whole world knows it.

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