THERE IS A fundamental disconnect in the annual Washington debate over foreign aid. The president necessarily sees the issue more or less in the round, which is how the Clinton budgeteers come to believe that the deep cuts made by House and Senate appropriators "would seriously impair the president's ability to conduct an effective foreign policy" and are "grossly inadequate to maintain America's lead around the world." By the nature of his job as well as by his particular policy preferences, Bill Clinton comes to a presidential view.

In Congress, however, things are different. Legislators tend to work over always-vulnerable foreign aid in the light of specific programs they either favor or deny. Narrowly, though granted sometimes usefully, focused on program issues, they take scant responsibility for seeing the big picture. It is enough for most of them to take an issue-by-issue stand.

This congressional tendency explains much about how congressional appropriators have now carelessly cut nearly $2 billion from what the president requested. It is hard to prove mathematically that $2 billion defines the difference between a policy that serves the national interest and a policy that undermines it. But precisely such a judgment is what is required, and in this instance the president has only shaky support in Congress for making it.

Lighten up, some say: Congress is still at the game-playing stage of the aid debate. A conference between Senate and House appropriators is yet to come, and then there will likely be a confrontation over the expected presidential veto. But a happy ending is far from ensured, and meanwhile there is a palpable risk of the weakening of the multiple funds, programs and institutions that make up the official American contribution to development, to the alleviation of poverty and disease and to stability. These are the stakes of a debate that so far has advertised an American flight from leadership.