PRESIDENT Clinton has wanted from the start to concentrate on the domestic issues that elected him. To that end, I believe, he has decided to avoid political conflict on foreign policy as much as possible, giving ground to conservative opponents there so as to husband his strength for the domestic battle.
That tactic explains a number of areas where Mr. Clinton has clung to past conservative policies. Two current examples, important ones, are nuclear testing and Angola.
Legislation passed last year imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing until this July 1. From then until September 1996 the law allows 12 underground explosions to test the safety of nuclear weapons and three to test reliability. After that there would be none -- unless other countries tested.
According to reports over the weekend, Mr. Clinton is likely soon to order a resumption of testing after July 1. He would do so despite overwhelming evidence that tests are unnecessary for military purposes, and would be extremely damaging to America's interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
The United States now has upward of 10,000 nuclear weapons. The Cold War is over. Everyone agrees that we need far fewer: probably hundreds, not thousands. Under strategic arms agreements, the U.S. and Russia are already committed to coming down to 5,000 each.
U.S. forces are in the process of withdrawing many warheads. The ones being taken out of service are older models; newer ones with safety features to reduce the chance of accidental explosion will remain. And Bush administration officials told Congress last year that the Air Force and Navy do not want to put any new safety features on existing warheads.
Moreover, the 1992 law allows testing of warheads with new safety features only if they are actually due for deployment -- not mere experiments.
If we resume testing, Russia and France will probably follow, and perhaps China. That would greatly reduce our leverage to persuade North Korea and others not to go nuclear. The have-nots have always said that a universal test ban is a necessary preliminary to meaningful agreement on non-proliferation.
Why, then, would President Clinton be considering such a counterproductive step? The answer is that he wants to avoid a fight with conservatives in the Senate and the military who want to go on testing forever.
The pressure for tests originates in the three nuclear laboratories: Livermore in California, Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico. They do not want to go out of business -- or have their work converted to something more useful. And they have friends in Washington.
So the president's inclination is to "compromise," to order enough tests so the laboratories and their backers will be content. But no matter how he explains it, he would undermine his own leadership in the effort to keep nuclear weapons from spreading to new countries.
In Angola, the civil war was supposed to have ended last fall, with a U.N.-supervised election. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos won a plurality and his party a legislative majority.
But the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, denounced the results and resumed the war. The government had naively cut its army as the peace agreement required, from 100,000 to about 10,000.
As a result the Savimbi forces have occupied large parts of the country. Many thousands of civilians have been killed or are starving, relief unable to get through.
In the past the United States withheld recognition from the Angolan government because the rebels had powerful support among American conservatives. Now State Department officials are pressing for recognition. Otherwise, they say, we look as if we are rewarding people who upset peace agreements and elections.
But so far President Clinton has said no to recognition. Why? The only reason I can see is that he does not want to upset Jesse Helms and other friends of the Savimbi forces.
The tactic of yielding to conservatives in foreign policy results in Bill Clinton doing things that were deplored by Democrats when Ronald Reagan and George Bush did them. And the tactic rests on an unconvincing political theory. Giving way to your opponents in one area does not make you stronger in others. It encourages the opposition to think you are weak.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.