Foreign policy president Clinton abroad: Trip to Korea, Japan and Russia gives him political advantage over Dole.


PRESIDENT CLINTON'S weeklong journey to Korea, Japan and Russia gives him still another chance to exploit the advantages of incumbency in the one area, foreign affairs, where chief executives have the most leeway and freedom of action. His high-profile journey will contrast with Sen. Bob Dole's rather frantic efforts in Washington to work out a Republican legislative agenda.

The Senate majority leader has a problem Mr. Clinton will savor: How to stop the Republican majority in the House from inflicting damage on what has become an uphill GOP quest for victory in November. Public opinion polls indicate that overreach on the part of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his militant freshmen has hurt them and their party. Even now, Senator Dole is having trouble getting their approval for a program that will be sufficiently mainstream to please the voters and yet be provocative enough to draw a succession of Clinton vetoes.

Mr. Clinton's rise in the polls has roughly coincided with partisan budget encounters that twice shut down the government and his more decisive policy initiatives in Bosnia. Republicans drew the bulk of popular anger about the budget shutdowns. And the Bosnia operation, which has proceeded with almost no casualties, has enabled the president to recover from a disastrous beginning in Somalia.

For photo ops, nothing Senator Dole can do this week can compare to presidential trips abroad. In Korea, Mr. Clinton is dealing with the latest North Korean threats of war. In Japan, he will place his imprimatur on the weekend agreement to reduce the U.S. base presence in Okinawa and will talk trade with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The Russia stop, including an international conference on nuclear dangers, will be the most important in light of Mr. Clinton's big stake (despite Chechnya) in President Boris Yeltsin's re-election.

A Communist victory would be a severe setback for the president's foreign policy and, as such, would provide Mr. Dole with a campaign issue. Likewise, if Israel's Likud comes to power this year, thus undermining a Middle East peace process closely associated with Mr. Clinton. Bosnia also presents a potential land mine for the president if conditions there go sour.

On balance, foreign policy offers more opportunities than obstacles to the political fortunes of this president -- and, indeed, to most White House occupants. Mr. Clinton's trip this week is just the start of a campaign to change his image from a 1992 hopeful promising to "focus like a laser" on the domestic economy to a 1996 statesman confidently walking the world stage.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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