Opening what is certain to be one of the central foreign policy debates of the next presidential campaign, Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and a likely Republican presidential candidate, on Wednesday accused the Clinton Administration of betraying American interests by too closely embracing Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Dole asserted that President Clinton is pursuing a naive, misguided policy toward Russia and Yeltsin, who Dole claimed has repeatedly undercut American diplomatic efforts in Korea, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere while embarking on an increasingly authoritarian path at home.
In an address before a forum sponsored by the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, the Kansas senator sketched an approach to foreign affairs that he said mirrored that of former President Richard Nixon, based on realism and American global leadership.
Dole lashed Clinton for turning a blind eye to Yeltsin's repudiation of his own reformist advisers and his brutal prosecution of the war in the rebellious province of Chechnya.
He characterized Clinton's policy as "defending, denying and rationalizing Russia's misdeeds."
Clinton, speaking later before the same group, declined to respond directly to Dole's criticism on Russia, choosing rather to fight Dole and his other Republican challengers on different ground.
The President warned of a rising tide of isolationism fueled by Republican tightfistedness and distrust of the United Nations and other international organizations.
"Today, if we are to be strong at home and lead abroad, we must overcome a dangerous and growing temptation in our land to focus solely on the problems we face here in America," he said. "America cannot walk away from its interests or its responsibilities."
Clinton appears to be positioning himself as the internationalist of the 1996 presidential field--after winning office in 1992 on a platform of almost exclusively domestic concerns.
Clinton argued that the United States must remain engaged in the world, sometimes at the cost of American lives and money.
"The new isolationists are wrong," he declared. "They would have us face the world alone. We must not let the ripple of isolationism they have generated build into a tidal wave."
It fell to Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, to answer Dole's charges on the Administration's Russia policy.
Lake said Dole's allegation that Clinton is pursuing a "Russia first" policy is "simply wrong."
But he defended Clinton's hearty embrace of Yeltsin, who he said represents the best hope for reform in post-Communist Russia.
"Yeltsin has traditionally been the leader of the reform movement in Russia," Lake said in an afternoon briefing. "Chechnya has started to drive a wedge between President Yeltsin and some of the reformers. In our view, it is important that we act in a way which makes it easier, rather than harder, for Yeltsin and the reformers to come together again."
The Clinton and Dole speeches, together with an address to the same body by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), provide a framework for the coming conflict between the two parties over the role of the United States in the world and American willingness to commit its resources to global flash points.
The smoldering dispute over the correct American approach to Yeltsin and Russia's difficulties appears ready for full combustion.
Clinton's emphasis in his speech on American "engagement" was designed in part to answer the deep Republican antipathy toward U.N.-led peacekeeping operations.
The House has already passed a measure that would severely restrict American commitment of money and manpower to such operations. Some version of the law is likely to pass the Senate, where Dole has sponsored similar legislation in the past.
In a deliberate effort to place himself at the center of the debate, Clinton is seeking to portray opposition to U.N. peacekeeping ventures as 1930s-style isolationism.
Gingrich, speaking hours before the President but answering his expected criticism, said he had led the fight for Republican votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the new world trade treaty.
"I'm always curious when there is some presumption we are in any way isolationist. . . . My commitment to the international cause of freedom is pretty overwhelming," he said.
In their remarks, Clinton and Dole appeared to be competing for Nixon's mantle as the hard-nosed internationalist, both advocating the forceful and unsentimental pursuit of American interests abroad.
Clinton began his speech by citing a letter he had received from Nixon a month before the former President died last spring.
"President Nixon believed deeply that the United States cannot be strong at home unless we lead abroad," Clinton told the audience of lawmakers, journalists, government officials and former Nixon aides.
Dole, whose views on foreign affairs generally have fallen within the mainstream of postwar internationalism, reasserted an American obligation to lead, and he quoted Nixon criticizing those who believe that the burden of leadership is too great.
"But President Nixon was right: You pay a price for leadership . . . but, in my view, it's a price that's worth paying," Dole said.
Much of Clinton's speech was devoted to outlining the Administration's agenda for controlling the spread of nuclear weaponry and technology. Clinton called for strict enforcement of the recent agreement with North Korea that would help prevent the development of nuclear weapons; the unconditional and indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; completion of a treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons and ratification by the Senate of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was negotiated with the Soviet Union and signed during the George Bush Administration and would eliminate more than 5,000 nuclear warheads from the Russian and U.S. arsenals.
In an attempt to reassure a number of Third World nations that are reluctant to sign the non-proliferation treaty, Clinton announced Wednesday night that the United States is voluntarily and unilaterally removing 200 tons of bomb-making material from its weapons stockpile. The plutonium and highly enriched uranium could have formed the core of thousands of new warheads, Clinton said. "It will never again be used to build a nuclear weapon," he declared.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.