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The Career and Record of George Mitchell

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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After assuming the presidency in 1993, Clinton soon announced he would extend China's mostfavored-nation status for one year -- but that future renewals would depend on China's human-rights progress. Mitchell backed him. A year later, Clinton reversed himself and announced the "delinking" of trade and human rights in U.S. policy toward China. Mitchell broke with him this time and again sponsored legislation linking MFN and human rights. However, with Democrats flocking to support their president, the measure was defeated in the House and Mitchell dropped it. It is unlikely that Secretary of State Mitchell could persuade Clinton to reverse himself again on China. But he would likely stand before China's totalitarian gerontocracy with a stiffer posture than Christopher's.

Still, the capital that might feel the greatest jolt in a transition from Christopher to Mitchell would not be Beijing but Damascus. Christopher made two dozen visits to Damascus in a futile and embarrassing effort to court Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. Mitchell is of Lebanese Maronite extraction on his mother's side, and there are a few hints in Mitchell's record of a sympathetic concern for the plight of Lebanon, whose sovereignty has been fatally compromised by Syria.

In 1983, he was one of only two Democrats to vote to authorize the Reagan administration's deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon -- the only key foreign-policy vote of his career on which he bucked an overwhelming majority of his Democratic colleagues. When President Bush met with Syria's Assad in Geneva during the Gulf crisis, Mitchell went out of his way to denounce the meeting as a "serious misjudgment by the president" on the grounds of " Syria's long record of complicity in terrorism" and its parlous human-rights record.

Bill Clinton's first two years in the White House were marked by an utter aversion to foreign policy. And his choice of the sphinx-like Christopher as secretary of state seemed intended somehow to keep these issues under wraps. In the second half of his first term, Clinton appeared to gain a growing appreciation for the importance of foreign policy. With no more election campaigns in his fixture, Clinton revealed recently that his thoughts were turning increasingly to achieving greatness in his presidency. Might he look to the international arena for the fulfillment of this last quest?

The selection of Mitchell suggests otherwise. All of the other candidates rumored to be under consideration for the position -- Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Sam Nunn, Strobe Talbott -- possess broader experience and deeper interest in foreign policy than Mitchell. His appointment would mean that Clinton is seeking another Christopher to mind the store while the man from Hope seeks his place in history in the groves of domestic policy.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.