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GOP Pounces on Clinton’s Conduct Of Foreign Policy in China, Kosovo

By John F. Harris and Helen Dewar
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

President Clinton, say the Republicans, has played the dupe in pursuing closer relations with China. He has been heedless, according to the GOP line, in his willingness to send U.S. troops to Kosovo. And, on issues from missile defense to Pentagon spending, he stands accused of taking a naively shortsighted approach to the dangers loose in the world.

These controversies are all signs of an unfamiliar sight springing up in recent days through Washington’s political soil: a foreign policy debate. After a long season in which America’s role abroad was a mostly dormant issue in domestic politics, congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates are on the offensive against the administration on multiple fronts.

It is a strategy, according to several leading GOP foreign policy voices, arrived at more by happenstance than design. Moreover, even some Republicans acknowledge they are still too far from a consensus among themselves to mount a sustained critique of Clinton’s foreign policy.

Even so, recent events have presented an uncommonly large number of opportunities to fire at the execution of the administration’s policies -- from allegations of Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear lab to abortive efforts to fashion a peace agreement in Kosovo. With the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal receding, Republicans have eagerly seized the chance to puncture Clinton’s post-impeachment political armor.

“Almost everywhere you look there are problems,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Republicans have gained largely by raising the right questions... questions the American people want to have asked.”

Neither Clinton’s White House aides nor even most Republicans anticipate that foreign policy will be an issue on which the 2000 presidential or congressional elections will hinge. But both sides said there are signs that foreign policy may play a somewhat more prominent role than in recent elections. Above all, foreign policy is a place to gain traction against an administration -- including its leader-in-waiting, Vice President Al Gore -- that is less vulnerable on domestic issues because of the strength of the economy.

Many Republicans say their complaints with Clinton are not so much over basic tenets -- there is broad agreement, for instance, between GOP leaders and Clinton on world engagement versus isolationism. But there are long-standing complaints that his interest in problems -- from Iraq to North Korea to Kosovo -- is episodic, responding mostly to crises. Some believe his credibility in dealing with Congress and world leaders has been seriously strained.