President Carter expressed frustration yesterday at Vietnam war-inspired congressional restrictions on White House action to help beleaguered "friendly" governments resist Communist insurgency.
He told a White House breakfast meeting with congressional leaders that he had ordered a State Department review of such restrictions on military and foreign assistance by the United States.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said later than the review could lead to legislation that would ease some of those restrictions, although he and other administration officials were extremely vague in discussing how the president feels he is constrained.
Carter raised the subject of "restrictions" at the leadership breakfast meeting after Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R.Tenn.), a potential presidential candiate in 1980, questioned the administration's response to the Cuban presence in Africa.
House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes R.Ariz.), one of the participants, said the president expressed "a certain amount, in fact a lot, of frustration at having his hands tied" in supporting friendly nations.
White House officials downplayed the significance of Carter's remarks. Powell said no recommendations for action were made at the meeting and that it would be premature to speculate about the outcome of the State Department review.
Nevertheless, the comments offered a revealing glimpse into the frustration felt by some in the administration, including, apparently, the president, over how to deal with the Cuban military role in Africa .
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security affairs adviser, has been the chief advocate of a taking a hard line, publicly suggesting that Soviet support for the Cuban presence in Africa endangers American-Soviet relations. In recent public comments, Carter has stepped up his criticism of the presence of Cuban troops in the Horn of Africa.
Yesterday's congressional breakfast came admid reports of another growing flareup in Africa involving attacks by rebel forces against the government of Zaire. Zaire government officials have charged that the rebels are being supported by the Marxist government of neighboring Angola.
Brzeinski told the congressional leaders than there are 20,000 Cuban troops in Angola, 17,000 in Ethiopia and 3,000 more scattered in other While Carter spoke of congressional "restrictions," the only specific limitation reportedly discussed at the breakfast meeting was the so-called "Clarkamendment" to the Arms Export Control Act of 1976.
The amendment, named after its sponsor, Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa), prohibits direct or indirect U.S. aid to any nation or group planning military action in Angola. In effect, it bans U.S. assistance to military efforts to overthrow the Angolan government.
The most sweeping restriction on the president's freedom to act overseas is the War Powers Act of 1973, which bans the commitment of U.S. troops to a foreign nation for more than 60 days without congressional approval.
However, White House officials were quick to say that Carter is not considering asking for a repeal or easing of that restriction, but rather is concerned over other restrictions on providing military and foreign aid to other countries.
Most of the restrictions written into law were enacted by Congress in reaction to the Vietnam war policies of former president Nixon and secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, a fact that did not go unnoticed by House Minority leader Rhodes.
"These restrictions were put on by a Democratic Congress on a Republican president and done for political purposes," he said.
In fact, while most of the Democrats who attended the White House breakfast had little to say about Carter's comemnts, Rhodes, said he and other Republicans would support legislation to ease the restrictions that are troubling the president.
Late yesterday, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance discussed the State Department review with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D.Mass).
Vance told reporters that "Some of these laws do restrain the president as to what can and can't be done, and the president feels strongly we should be looking at that." He mentioned specifially the Clark amendment and another congressionally imposed restriction that prohibits the CIA from conducting covert activities abroad unless declared bythe president to be "important to national security."