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Clinton, Dole Spar Over Foreign Policy

But the two share many views, with the exception of defense spending and use of force abroad

In an hour-long broadside last week, Sen. Bob Dole admonished President Clinton for "inconsistency, confusion, and incoherence" in managing US foreign policy, then pronounced his differences with Mr. Clinton "vast and fundamental."

Afterward, the Kansas Republican and presumed GOP presidential nominee closed ranks with Clinton - and broke ranks with many fellow Republicans - on one of the most important foreign policy issues of the year: granting preferential trade status to China.

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All of which raises this unlikely question: Rhetoric aside, are the foreign-policy views of the main contenders for the White House really all that different?

Assessing the upcoming election, some foreign-policy experts describe the two candidates as peas in a pod: internationalists who favor free trade and continued active - if selective - United States engagement in world affairs.

"Both are trying to straddle the fence between unilateralism and multilateralism, with Dole more clearly on the unilateral end of that spectrum and Clinton more clearly on the multilateral end," says Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the US Business and Industrial Council in Washington. "It's not quite splitting hairs, but it's awfully close."

Case in point: trade policy. As supporters of major international trade agreements like GATT and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - and, now "most favored nation" trade status for China - the two, in Mr. Tonelson's words, "are like Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum."

Other analysts challenge that view, insisting that Dole and Clinton would bring to the White House substantially different outlooks on the world.

"They share common ground against the [Pat] Buchanans and [Ross] Perots, but there are still major differences between them having to do with maturity, self-confidence, and a strategic view of the world," says Peter Rodman, director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.

Case in point: policy toward Russia. The GOP and Dole have a much less sentimental view of Russia "as a major power whose interests don't always coincide with our own," says Mr. Rodman, adding that such views translate into a greater sense of urgency about bringing the states of central Europe under NATO's protective umbrella.

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Dole's proximity to the political center highlights his distance from the relatively small but vocal contingent of hardline conservatives in his own party.

The broad coincidence of views between the two candidates, plus a string of Clinton foreign-policy successes from Haiti to Bosnia, also means that Dole may have a harder time assailing Clinton's record, which has won relatively high public approval ratings. That means Dole may need to spend more time stressing the character and experience he would bring to the job of managing US foreign policy, analysts say.

REPUBLICAN sources are quick to point out that part of the reason Dole and Clinton hold generally similar views is that, as president, Clinton has gravitated in Dole's direction.

Having opposed MFN for China, he now - like Dole - embraces it. Having bashed Japan on trade issues, he now - like Dole - affirms the importance of the US security alliance with Japan. Having downplayed the importance of the Western alliance, he now - like Dole - elevates it. Having championed humanitarian intervention abroad, he now - like Dole - is wary of it.

Partly because of Clinton's learning curve, but also because he has achieved some high-profile successes, Dole's policies on a range of issues would probably differ little from Clinton's, the president's backers note.

Despite opposition to a Clinton-brokered deal to provide North Korea with new nuclear technology in return for a freeze on the Communist state's nuclear weapons program, Dole, as president, would probably have little choice but to honor an arrangement that for now appears to be working.

Although reluctant to support Clinton's decision to contribute US troops to a NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, Dole would be as unlikely as Clinton to speed next year's planned withdrawal and thus invite a resumption of conflict between the Balkan nation's Muslim, Serb, and Croat antagonists.

Despite his strong criticism of Clinton's handling of relations with Japan, Dole would be forced to operate within the same constraints that now bind Clinton: the need to place pressure on Japan to open its markets wider to US products, but not so much pressure that Japanese security cooperation - needed to contain Chinese expansion in the Pacific - is jeopardized.

Likewise in the Middle East, there is likely to be little or no break in the essential continuity of US policy, which, through a succession of US presidential administrations, has been dedicated to promoting peace between Arabs and Israelis and protecting America's oil-rich allies in the Gulf.

The most striking differences between Clinton and Dole are in the areas of defense. Dole would seek larger defense budgets and would use military power, when needed, more decisively, his backers say. As president, Dole would also press for a ballistic missile defense system that the Clinton administration has opposed as unneeded and too expensive.

A Dole State Department, meanwhile, would be less inclined to give priority to global issues - including environment and population - that have been given elevated status in the Clinton administration. Dole also would be less supportive of the United Nations than is Clinton, though he is likely to honor US funding commitments to the world body.

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