Posted on November 28, 1994 in Washington Watch

Even before formally assuming the Chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Jesse Helms has created an unrelenting storm of controversy through his repeated challenges to the Clinton White House.

A hard-line conservative, Helms has made his mark in Washington as one of the most ardent anti-Communist, anti-”big government,” anti-abortion and anti-homosexual, pro-defense and pro-free market politicians in the Senate. As such, he is without question the most hated and/or revered Senator in Washington, depending upon one’s political leaning.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since his election in 1972, Helms has almost always placed himself as a member of the opposition. In fact, he has so often taken negative positions on issues (even when Republicans held the White House) that he earned the nickname “Senator No.” And as the leading Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has created serious difficulties for past Presidents – Democrat and Republican alike – especially by holding up Ambassadorial appointments either because of his personal opposition to the appointee or as part of an effort to force the Administration to deal with him on other issues.

On Middle East issues, Helms has had two distinct phases in his career. From 1972 until the early 1980’s he was not considered a friend of Israel. In fact, in a major policy statement issued in 1979, Helms lashed out against undue U.S. reliance on Israel, and argued that the U.S. had too many interests in the Arab world to maintain an “unbalanced” approach to the region. At the time, analysts considered this Helms Middle East policy statement to be one of the clearest articulations of a Republican business-oriented Middle East position ever issued by a U.S. Senator.

But then in the early 1980’s, Helms became a “born again” Christian and recanted his earlier views on the Middle East. Some suggested that Helms’ conversion was fueled more by the fear of facing a well-funded Democratic opponent in 1984 than fear of God. But regardless of the reason for the conversion, it stuck, and since 1984 Helms has been consistently pro-Israel.

He been consistently anti-Palestinian (except in the immediate aftermath of the September 13, 1993 signing ceremony). Observers present at the meeting between Helms and Yasir `Arafat noted that Helms gushed in his support of `Arafat and even asked for his autograph! This, of course, was surprising since Helms had been a leader in the effort opposing the U.S. dialogue with the PLO. However, Helms almost never opposed U.S. arms sales to “friendly” Arab states – the one area in which Helms’ conduct continued to upset pro-Israel groups in Washington.

No sooner had the Republicans established that they would control the 1995-1996 Senate and its agenda, Helms left no doubt that he expected to place his mark on U.S. foreign policy.

Within days of the November eighth elections, Helms senate office issued what might be considered the Senator’s “Manifesto” of “actions that the Senate Foreign relations committee should take in the next two years.” The list begins:

“1. The Committee must become more aggressive and comprehensive in its oversight responsibilities. We must be more active in ensuring the Department of State and the agencies under the jurisdiction of the Foreign relations Committee are carrying out their responsibilities as required by law.

“2. The requirement for the continued existence of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency as now structured should be evaluated.

“3. The structure of the Agency for International development (AID) will be assessed. Downsizing will be made where appropriate.

“4. An evaluation will be made as to why the Foreign Service should be under a different set of personnel rules from all other civilian personnel in the government.

“5. In the near future, Cuba is going to be a major foreign policy problem for the United States. We should have a plan of action for the time when Castro departs.

“6. The United States’ relationship with the United Nations should be re-evaluated. The organization (along with the “peacekeeping role we have now become so involved with) is costing us billions. A Complete assessm
ent should be made.

“7. A complete evaluation of existing and proposed treaties should be made. We have been deluged with treaties, many of which are detrimental to the best interests of the United States. This must stop.

“8. AID funding. We have got to reduce foreign aid. We can’t afford to give money away, and in the vast majority of cases it has been counter-productive. We should look at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) as an alternative.

“9. Best estimates are that the Camp David Accords have cost us $80-100 billion with no end in sight. Syria does not want peace with Israel. They want the Golan Heights and access to U.S. money. We must have an assessment of the Middle East Peace process to know what our commitments are before the fact. Congress must be more involved in what is agreed to before the fact.

“10. There are numerous lesser items such as confiscation of property, the role of NATO, appropriateness of U.S. contributions to international financial institutions (World Bank, IADP, European Bank, etc.) that must be assessed.”

All of this is consistent with Helms’ world view. He does not trust multi-lateral approaches to foreign policy. His is an “American First” politician and is distrustful of most international agencies. He is unconvinced that foreign aid plays a positive role in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. In public remarks since the issuing of the above outline of issues, Helms went so far as to characterize foreign aid as “American taxpayers’ money going down foreign rat holes,” and going to “countries that constantly oppose us in the United Nations.”

The Senator shocked many when he decried the Israel-Syria peace negotiations as a “fraud” and stated his belief that all the Syrians want is “access to the pocketbooks of American taxpayers.” And while Helms has made it clear to pro-Israel lobbyists that U.S. aid to Israel is secure, these same lobbyists worry that by giving Israel such preferential treatment it will create greater public pressure and some public resentment toward Israel.

But it is not Helms’ Manifesto or his lack of balance on the Middle East that has caused such a firestorm in Washington; it is the senator’s penchant for verbal bomb-throwing.

Immediately after the election, Helms hinted to the Clinton White House that unless the White House delayed a vote on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs Treaty (GATT) until next year, the “administration” would get something less than “full and fair” treatment before the Foreign Relations Committee under Helms’ leadership. Helms’ long-time opposition to trade agreements that would open U.S. borders to other products puts him at odds with most other Republican leaders, and incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has argued that such a delay would cost the U.S. $70 billion in trade. But Helms has kept up his opposition and is working with conservative Democrats to undercut the efforts of both the Democratic and Republican leaderships to pass the treaty this year.

More ominous, however, were Helms’ comments this past week regarding President Clinton in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military. When asked on national television whether he thought Clinton is “up to the job” of Commander-in-Chief, Helms responded: “You ask an honest question; I’ll give you an honest answer. No, I do not. And neither do the people in the armed forces.” Helms added that “just about every military man who writes to me” believe that Clinton is inadequate in that role. When asked whether the Joint Chiefs of Staff held that view, Helms said simply, “No comment” – implying that the at least some in the Joint Chiefs did hold such a view.

Finally, in an effort to dampen the furor over his Commander-in-Chief remarks, on November 22 Helms told a newspaper reporter from his home state of North Carolina that the President should be careful about visiting military bases in that state. “Mr. Clinton better watch out of he comes down here,” Helms said. “He better have a bodyguard.” While Helms later characterized this last remark as a “mistake,” he did not apologize for it.

Reaction to Senator Helms’ series of post-election remarks have caused some real embarrassment to Republican Party leaders. While most Republican Senators are cautious about publicly rebuking a powerful and volatile colleague, they have made every effort to distance themselves from Helms’ remarks.

But the Democrats have not been so tepid in their responses to Helms’ outbursts. Clearly outraged and, at the same time, clearly pleased that Helms may be shooting his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee in the foot, White House officials have been quick to seize on Helms’ miscues. And in the Senate, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd has been extremely outspoken in his criticism of Helms comments. In response to the comment on the danger Clinton would risk by visiting North Carolina military bases, Dodd said,

“To suggest on this day of all days, November 22nd (the 31st anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) that an American President’s life might be in jeopardy with a visit to an American military base would seem to suggest that Mr. Helms does not know what country he is living in.”

And the U.S. military leadership has also been firm in rebuking the senator for his implication that the military would be anything but loyal to the President who, by the authority of the Constitution, serves as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces. General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted, “I was taken aback by the implication that Helms left that somehow the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I shared his view on President Clinton. Nothing could be further from the truth….”

In fact, General Shalikashvili went on to describe the full confidence that he and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have in the President’s handling of international hot spots. And in response to Helms description of U.S. involvement in Haiti as “a foolish waste,” Shalikashvili responded that it has been a success and has the full support of the U.S. military.

The major U.S. press outlets have also reacted with exceptionally strong criticism of Helms in the wake of his remarks. In one day The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Baltimore Sun all called on Republicans to remove Helms from consideration as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

While probably will not happen, and Helms will likely assume the chairmanship of the Committee, unless he commits an even more embarrassing verbal mistake, it is clear, however, that the lines have been drawn between the Senator from North Carolina and the White House in the battle over foreign policy for the next two years.

The President has already firmly staked out his own response to Helms, and his detached and dignified tone will probably be the one he uses for the next two years when he speaks of Helms. In his comments about the threat from visiting military bases, Clinton simply said, “I think the remarks were unwise and inappropriate.” And Clinton went on to note that, “The President oversees the foreign policy of the United States, and the Republicans will decide in whom they repose their trust and confidence. That’s a decision for them to make, not for me.”

But the matter will not end here. The very underpinnings of the Clinton Administration’s approach to foreign policy will be challenged by Helms at every stage. He is already demanding an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Haiti, he is opposed to U.S. actions to end the arms embargo on Bosnia, he is opposed to most foreign aid, and opposes U.S. policy everywhere from the efforts to nurture a peace agreement between Israel and Syria to GATT treaty.

The Administration will be facing fights on several fronts during the next two years: the Whitewater controversy will be rekindled soon, the President’s budget proposal will be seriously challenged in Congress and Republicans will attempt to press forward their “Contract with America” in the first 100 days of the next session. But in as much as those challenges were expected and can be prepared for, they are simpler than trying to deal with a lone Senator who is responsible to neither his party nor the generally accepted manners of Washington. Jesse Helms’ unpredictability and his penchant for making irresponsible statements make him something more than a thorn in the side of the Administration.

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