Who's an isolationist?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- DEMOCRATS ARE complaining about Republican "isolationism" and congressional involvement in foreign policy.

How strange.

Apparently the liberal establishment is surprised that a Republican Congress would actually propose measures that reflect the thinking of Republican members and the American people.

Rather than working with Congress, President Clinton has resorted to sloganeering, calling a Republican foreign-aid bill isolationist.

The president has threatened to veto the House legislation, which would make foreign aid less wasteful and more efficient, while Senate Democrats have slowed committee action on parallel legislation.

He has also expressed concern over an alleged congressional "frontal assault on the authority of the president" to conduct foreign policy.

Occasionally, Congress will step into a vacuum, as in the case of Bosnia, where indecision and inconsistency have been the hallmarks of administration policy.

Can Congress go too far? Certainly, but I do not recall any Democrats expressing this anxiety when Republican presidents faced congressional "assaults" by Democrats.

In the 1980s these assaults included restricting aid to freedom fighters in Nicaragua, mandating comprehensive sanctions on South Africa over President Ronald Reagan's veto and setting aside funds for myriad pet projects from tropical timber to African elephants.

The Democrats also undercut arms-control negotiations by trying legislate nuclear-test bans and unilaterally canceling weapons systems that the Soviet Union opposed.

The last time a foreign-aid authorization bill was signed (by Mr. Reagan in 1985), it included Democratic-inspired restrictions affecting American policy everywhere from the Arabian Peninsula to Zaire.

The Clinton administration's concerns seem to rest on shifting sands. One day Congress is accused of infringing on presidential authority by pressing the administration to grant a visa to President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan. The next week, when the visa is granted, it is administration policy.

If Mr. Clinton wants a serious dialogue on foreign-policy responsibilities, he should end his conspicuous silence on Republican efforts to repeal the War Powers Resolution, which would dispense with a real threat to presidential prerogatives.

Many Democrats who now decry partisanship in foreign policy opposed Reagan-era national-security policies that led to victory the Cold War -- steadfast opposition to the Soviet empire; opposition to Communist aggression; deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe and support for a ballistic-missile defense.

The White House seems to think bipartisanship is an automatic entitlement, not the product of consultation, compromise and consistent execution of policy.

It is paradoxical that the Clinton team, which ran a presidential campaign that boasted of a domestic focus, now charges the party of Operation Desert Storm, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and most-favored-nation treatment for China with isolationism.

It is congressional Republicans who have regularly prodded a reluctant administration on a number of internationalist issues such as the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Commitment to internationalism should not be measured by the number of U.N. peacekeeping operations or international development programs that the Republicans endorse. The very administration that labels a $3 billion cut in spending for foreign aid and the United Nations a sign of isolationism has slashed American defense spending by $127 billion over five years.

A strong military is far more important to the nation's ability to protect its interests and retain its global leadership role than additional foreign-aid grants and subsidies for questionable multilateral activities.

Balancing the budget is not just an issue of the overall number but also of priorities.

The administration has spent almost $3 billion in nation-building in Somalia and Haiti -- hardly strategically crucial areas.

But when additional resources to support American interests had to be found, the Republicans came through. After Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, the new Republican Congress appropriated $275 million to reduce Jordan's debt by cutting less important international programs.

Oddly, after describing this additional aid as critical to the Middle East peace process, Mr. Clinton announced that he would veto legislation that included Jordan's aid.

The Democrats, who have made an impassioned defense of bureaucratic business as usual, fear that Congress will pass the boldest reorganization of foreign-affairs agencies in decades.

Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Benjamin Gilman have introduced budget-conscious legislation that would fold the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department in order to save money and to make sure that money is spent on programs that further U.S. interests.

Eliminating duplication can achieve big savings. GOP bills would overhaul international exchange programs that have no apparent link to America's interest but cater solely to bureaucrats' needs.

Today more than 33 agencies administer more than 100 such programs at a cost of almost $2 billion.

Republicans are prepared to make radical reforms in how America gives foreign aid. Many studies have identified waste, arrogance and incompetence in the Agency for International Development.

AID's response to a diphtheria epidemic in Ukraine is a particularly tragic example. Despite 18 months of effort by the Centers for Disease Control, the agency refused to release funds to allow the CDC to address a 30-fold increase there in the disease.

Only after funds were wrested from AID's control in April 1994 was the CDC able to begin saving lives.

Despite the agency's sorry record, its political appointees have loudly defended their bureaucratic turf. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing focuses a bureaucracy like the prospect of elimination.

The administration has yet to come to terms with the implications of last November's political earthquake. Republicans in Congress want to work with the president on foreign policy whenever possible.

But we will not passively accept policies that harm the national interest and violate American principles.

Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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