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U.S.: Washington Journal -- Albright's Biggest Problem Will Be Money

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 3 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The biggest problem facing America's next Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has nothing to do with foreign policy and everything to do with domestic politics.

Washington insiders say her most challenging task will be to present a persuasive case for foreign affairs to the White House and to legislators in the U.S. Congress to convince them both to allocate more money to the State Department's budget.

Albright is to take over from retiring Warren Christopher on January 20 -- Inauguration Day for President Bill Clinton's second four-year term and his new cabinet.

But before she is sworn into office, Albright's nomination to the job of top U.S. diplomat has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It's a two-stage procedure that is expected to go through without major problems. In modern times, the Senate has never rejected a U.S. president's choice for Secretary of State.

Next Wednesday, on January 8, Albright will go through the first and most important part -- testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee will then agree on a recommendation and the matter will pass out of the Committee to be voted on by all 100 U.S. Senators.

The confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is an opportunity both for Albright and panel members to air their views on major issues and set the tone of the foreign policy debate for the next twelve months.

Albright can expect to be asked about the Middle East, NATO, Russia, China, Bosnia and the budget for foreign affairs, among other things.

Traditionally, partisan quarrelling between Democrats and Republicans has been muted in foreign affairs to present a united, patriotic front to the world. Although the tradition has weakened in recent years, foreign policy differences between the Republican-dominated Congress and the Democrat-controlled executive branch are relatively minor, mostly of emphasis and degree.

But the rhetoric is often fiery, with Republicans taking the moral high ground -- customary for the opposition -- and attacking the Clinton administration for supposedly preferring pragmatism to principle.

On NATO, Albright is likely to be asked how America's security will be affected by expanding the alliance to former communist countries, what the cost will be to the United States, and why the Baltic states will not be invited this year to join NATO.

On China, questions can be expected to focus on U.S. responses to Beijing's human rights violations, repression in Tibet, arms trade with Iran, and policies towards Hong Kong and Taiwan.

When the attention of the committee turns to the Balkans, the focus of their enquiry is likely to be the presence of U.S. troops in Bosnia and the situation in Serbia.

And on Russia, there is congressional concern about Russia's nuclear equipment sales to Iran, Moscow's demands to renegotiate arms control treaties and criticism that Washington's policy of cooperation with Moscow sometimes borders on appeasement.

However, the mere fact of Albright's nomination has done much to dispel that particular charge.

Russia's former ambassador to the United States, Vladimir Lukin, now a member of the Duma, said her appointment shows that "Washington intends to take a tougher stance with Moscow."

While Warren Christopher was widely respected for his decency, courtesy and patience, Albright is often described as tough, outspoken and decisive.

The State Department is full of rumors about a change in the tone and rhetoric of U.S. diplomacy and pending changes in personnel. That is often the case when a new secretary of state takes charge and does not necessarily mean a change of policy.

President Bill Clinton, as well as Christopher and Albright, have all emphasized the continuity of U.S. foreign policy, assuring foreign leaders that the change in secretary of state does not change America's goals and role in the world.

But Albright is expected to be a more forceful advocate of those goals than Christopher and that includes attempting to convince the powers in Washington that decide money matters not to cut the State Department's budget any further.

U.S. spending on foreign affairs has been declining steadily for more than a decade and under current plans is to go down even more over the next five years to help reduce the national deficit and balance the budget by the year 2002.

The State Department wants at least to maintain its budget at $20.8 billion for the next 1998 fiscal year beginning this October 1. But the White House is proposing a fiscal 1998 budget of only $18.3 billion for the State Department.

In the waning days of December, Christopher spent two days at the White House trying to persuade the budget cutters there to revise their figures up so that the State Department would be able to pay for embassies around the world, foreign aid, the Peace Corps, international broadcasting, United Nations dues and other programs.

The White House proposal will be submitted as a request to the U.S. Congress in February, and serve as a basis for congressional decisions on national budget allocations.

Legislators work up their own budget figures and have the final say on it. Congressional funding for foreign affairs has been significantly lower in recent years than the amount proposed by the White House and has now sunk to a level that alarms even a few Republicans.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Clinton last month urging him to stop the erosion in foreign affairs spending.

U.S. analysts say, however, that most of Lugar's congressional colleagues take a more conservative view and that Albright will need all her powers of oratory and persuasion to convince legislators not to reduce the State Department's funds. They say that will be her biggest fight in the months ahead.