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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What if Helms Takes Over U.S. Foreign Policy?

The two words "Jesse Helms" are the main reason why Moscow should worry about the fate of the Democrats in next week's mid-term elections. If the Republicans win seven seats in the Senate, then the rules of seniority say that Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina becomes chairperson of the foreign relations committee.


This would make this former Television and radio host, who got into politics as a racial segregationist, the ultimate arbiter of all ambassadorial appointments, all foreign treaties and a large swathe of U.S. foreign policy. And this means in turn that the president's traditional ability to act freely in foreign affairs will come under unusual and hostile scrutiny. Poor Bill Clinton.


This is particularly important because the new flurry of interest in Clinton is tending to miss an important point: He is not deploying the Prince Hal gambit.


The golden rule on exploiting foreign affairs for domestic political purposes, as defined by Shakespeare's Prince Henry IV, was to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Clinton, by contrast, is investing his presidency in the business of peacemaking, from the Middle East to Haiti.


Putting U.S. troops into the breach in Haiti and in the future on the Golan Heights, carries nearly as much risk as the Prince Hal option, but with far less prospect of glory. It also blurs the line between U.S. national interest, which Helms take seriously, and a wider international interest that involves the United States acting in support of the United Nations, a body which Helms appears to hold in contempt.


Helms deeply dislikes all that the Clinton administration stands for, from supporting the United Nations to the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements. The large number of blue-collar textile workers in his state of North Carolina means that Helms cannot afford to be nearly as devoted to free trade as most of his Republican colleagues.


But free trade lies at the heart of Clinton's international agenda. Shortly after the elections, Clinton flies to Jakarta for the second summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference. And then in December, he will be in Miami, hosting the new western hemisphere summit, where the Latin Americans will be trying to secure commitments for their entry into NAFTA.


Helms is not known for his partiality to Latin Americans. That is not quite fair. He makes an exception for those stoutly anti-Communist generals who have launched military coups to save their countries from the tumults of democracy.


Helms is also most suspicious of any American financial or other support for Russia. He opposed "detente" in the 1970s and thought that Gorbachev's perestroika was a confidence trick. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he grumbled about leopards not changing their spots.


Even when modest U.S. aid to Russia has been called "an investment in democracy" by President Bush or Clinton, Helms glowers. He has insisted that those so-called ex-Commies put down some serious collateral for any loans they get.


Even Republicans are nervous about the implications of Jesse Helms in the chair. There is some wishful thinking about Indiana Senator Richard Lugar exchanging his seat on the agriculture committee with Helms. But Helms fears that he may be all that stands between the United States and international disaster. If he insists on foreign relations,it will be very hard to stop him.