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Clinton's Big Traffic Jam

Today Asia. Next, Europe. Then a campaign to reverse his stunning loss on trade authority.

As America ends this Marshall Plan 50th anniversary year, President Clinton suddenly faces six months of uphill battles on mini-Marshall Plans for Asia and Europe. Procrastination and untoward events bear a high price tag. But, paradoxically, they also present the kind of history-book opportunities for region-building and trade-building Mr. Clinton clearly craves.

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Those are six months that, characteristically, he had been allotting to cranking up the volume on his campaign for a Democratic Congress in next November's election.

But he'll need all the bipartisanship he can muster from the current Republican Congress if he is to win backing for:

1. A potentially costly Asian recovery plan.

2. Expansion of NATO and extension of US forces in NATO's Bosnia peacekeeping operation. Both carry sizable price tags.

3. Reversal of his defeat at the hands of his own party on fast-track trade authority.

First, Asia. Mr. Clinton has to follow through on the brave generalizations of the just-ended Vancouver summit of Pacific Rim leaders. That means summoning up the funds for Asian rebuilding loans. Already we know South Korea will require more than the $20 billion expected from the International Monetary Fund. Others will also need supplementary loans.

Clinton will need reminders to persist on pressing Asian leaders to follow through on promised economic reforms essential to the regional economic recovery plan. And his team can't let up on nudging North Korea away from military strikes and toward unification talks.

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Next, Europe. It's strong and gradually uniting today because of the original Marshall Plan. To stabilize its own house it must settle the single currency (single central bank) issue. It also needs help to keep the peace to its southeast (Bosnia, Cyprus, etc.). It wants NATO's shield to shelter Central Europe while the economic-political European Union grows eastward.

Clinton requires Senate approval for his role in moving this mini-Marshall expansion. And he'll need House backing for the necessary funding. (To fund the original Marshall Plan, Harry Truman could count on bipartisan foreign policy support forged at the end of World War II. He also benefited from Stalin's grab at Czechoslovakia).

Bill Clinton can hardly afford to alienate GOP leaders, as he did in his 1996 campaign attacks, if he wants to rescue Asian regional stability and solidify and expand Europe.

But can he reclaim Democratic congressional support if he's cozy with Newt and Trent in an election year? Ironically, trouble at the helm of his big financial backer, organized labor, may help him. The funding scandal that may be spreading from the Teamsters Union to the AFL-CIO could undermine the militancy of Democratic congressional opposition.

Which brings us back to trade. Conventional wisdom says that since trade barriers are already low it isn't really necessary for Clinton to refight the battle for fast-track authority.

Wrong. He'll need to show he's willing to fight for freer global trade if he wants to (1) prevent Latin America from rolling backward (Brazil and neighbors just raised some tariffs) or rolling on without the US; (2) lead Asia onward; (3) wrestle with Europe on farm tariffs.

America's leaders face a big traffic jam - and a huge opportunity.

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