Fools on the Hill

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 1999, 12:00am

Two items of foreign policy note occurred this week in Washington. Together, they capture the diplomatic problems America faces 10 years after the Berlin Wall fell and launched a new global reality.

President Bill Clinton, about to tour a reshaped Europe, warned against a growing US isolationism. He argued there remains a need for 'the kind of American leadership that for 50 years brought friends and allies to our side while moving mountains around the world'.

Over in the Senate, meantime, an irritated Republican stalled confirmation of Admiral Joseph Prueher as the next US ambassador to China. The admiral, suggested Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire, is 'a bit naive on China at best, or at worst somewhat dangerous to the nation's national security'. This absurd statement concerns the Navy man in charge when Washington sent two carriers near Taiwan three years ago.

Senator Smith is not known as one of the brighter bulbs in Congress. But he is only one of many who repeatedly seek short-term political gain at the expense of the national interest - let alone to interests of American friends overseas.

For example, they scuppered the nuclear test ban treaty - not so much on the serious grounds that it may be flawed - but mainly because they dislike Mr Clinton. They have not financed dismantling of the Russian nuclear arsenal, something that seems overwhelmingly in their interest. They won't pay past dues to the UN, putting US voting rights at risk. And crafting a balanced view of China seems beyond them.

Mr Clinton has not provided the best possible example, of course. His attention to foreign policy is sporadic, and he can retreat quickly whenever he runs into domestic opposition. He has been rather unsteady at the helm.

Even so, there is a mindless quality to the Congressional responses his foreign policy team so often faces. Though much of the world still wants intelligent, if restrained, US leadership, the Congress too often has trouble rising above personal pique, short-term partisan advantage or other petty matters.

It is likely that Mr Clinton's appeal once again fell on deaf ears.