Spy case may not prove such an asset for GOP



WASHINGTON -- The rush of some Republican senators to see a return of the Cold War in the arrest of a high CIA officer charged with spying for Moscow indicates again their belief that foreign policy is President Clinton's Achilles' heel and, if they rub it the right way, it can defeat him in the 1996 election.

But while Clinton has characterized the case as "very serious" and the FBI is said to claim that a number of informers in the old Soviet Union lost their lives as a result, the fact that spying went on, and still does, is hardly a revelation. Intelligence operations in Moscow against the United States and by the CIA against the Soviet Union and now Russia have been routine over the years.

When such spy cases came to light in the heat of the Cold War, they served to harden stereotypes about the ruthlessness of a godless communism that was poised to destroy the United States in a barrage of thermonuclear missiles. But with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union into independent states experimenting with democracy and market economies, it's going to be hard for the Republicans to use the Aldrich Ames spy case to play the old allegation of "softness" against the Democrats that was such an easy game during the Cold War.

All this, however, doesn't mean that Clinton's initiative in providing foreign aid to Russia, achieved with bipartisan backing, won't be in for heavier sledding now. Demands like the one from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole that American aid to Russia be discontinued unless Moscow ends all spying operations against the United States in this country can be dismissed as unrealistic. For openers, how do you prove they have ended?

But other Republicans, some of whom supported Clinton last year on Russian aid, have reservations now on whether Russian President Boris Yeltsin, so conspicuously befriended by Clinton when his reform leadership was challenged by old hard-liners, will be able to survive and prevent a rollback to more contentious times between the two countries.

The Ames case, in surfacing when it has, has given the Republicans a convenient new peg for escalating their argument that Bill Clinton is a foreign-policy babe in the woods who in his concentration on domestic policies is letting the nation's guard down. Never mind that Ames is alleged to have been in the service of Moscow when he was a top CIA counterintelligence official dealing with the Soviet bloc during the presidencies of two Republicans: Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

It's probably fair to say that Clinton was able to mobilize bipartisan support for aid to Russia because Yeltsin, like Clinton, seemed bent on putting his own domestic house in order. Any evidence or reminder of the old meddling Russian bear, like the Ames case or the late Russian role in bringing about a lifting of the siege of Sarajevo, gives many of these Republicans grounds to contend that it's a mistake to assume that the bear has been domesticated.

Clinton does risk increased allegations of softness by holding the line on Russian aid in the face of the spying charges. He has to try to convey concern without blowing the incident into a cause celebre that will undermine his determination to do all he can to keep the shaky Yeltsin regime on the course of democracy building. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in telling Congress that "American assistance is not charity," said it is given "because it is in the interest of the United States and for no other reason."

The last thing the American public wants right now is a return to the Cold War mentality. So Clinton is on strong political ground when he declines to get into a breast-beating uproar over the Ames case and continues to talk of the greater challenge and opportunity in helping Russia become a dependable member of the post-Cold War era.

With the economy improving at home, Republican warnings of )) foreign-policy weakness are not likely to cut very deeply with most voters. Until or unless the economy starts dipping again, the Republicans will probably need more than another John le Carre spy case to find real political opportunity in Clinton's supposed Achilles' heel.

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