'Easy' Bosnian decision not so easy for Clinton ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 25, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, the decision on whether t airlift food and medicine into eastern Bosnia is a no-brainer. For President Clinton, however, it is a serious test that will be closely watched.

That would be the case with any new president dealing with the first visible foreign policy decision of his embryonic administration. But the pressure on Clinton is heightened by the fact he has experience in neither international affairs nor the military, a piece of history driven home by George Bush's floundering campaign last October.

Moreover, the United States initiative is being taken in the face of opposition from the British and French and with only the reluctant acceptance of United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, obviously uneasy about the United States operating essentially independently of U.N. auspices despite the cover story to the contrary.

Clinton described the risks of the operation as "quite small." The plan is to make the drop from cargo planes from heights beyond reach of Serbian anti-aircraft fire without the use of fighter-bomber escorts capable of striking ground batteries. But the critical question is whether such an antiseptic operation can be carried out and, if not, what happens then? Does Clinton simply stop it or does he order more aggressive military action to make it work?

The one thing that the new president understands fully is that there is no way any administration can run a foreign military action that is prolonged or costly in casualties without a national consensus supporting such a policy. Resistance to becoming enmeshed in foreign adventures has not been tested. No one knows whether popular support for the attack on Saddam Hussein would have been sustained if there had been heavy casualties among Americans.

In this case, the pressure for a more active U.S. role has been stimulated by the television networks' continuing coverage of the hardships being suffered by the hapless victims of the bloody religious war in the former Yugoslavia.

This has become one of the realities of international politics today -- that the moving force in deciding which crises get attention and which do not is the television news coverage. It was the film of Somalia that inspired the effort there, the lack of similar film a few years ago that allowed genocide in Cambodia without interference from the outside world.

But the fact that television film can drive the policy doesn't mean it necessarily can build a consensus for sacrifice on the part of Americans. On the contrary, one of the clear messages of the 1992 campaign was that the voters want the government to spend its time and money on problems at home rather than those abroad. The opposition to the modest foreign aid program has continued to rise in opinion polls.

Perhaps the best evidence of the distance voters feel from the rest of the world was the experience of George Bush in the last campaign. Bush came out of the Persian Gulf war in the early spring of 1991 with approval ratings of 90 percent, higher than those for any president since polling became a regular feature of American politics. But by late fall Bush's approval rating had dropped down under 50 percent because of the perception that he was not dealing effectively with the economy. By Election Day Bush's success in the Persian Gulf had become politically irrelevant at best.

None of that history suggests that the new president should ignore a situation in Bosnia that cries out for redress. Clinton was elected to provide leadership from the White House, not simply to reflect the latest opinion surveys. But it does tell him the political context is not encouraging if the operation in Bosnia proves to be less simple than originally believed.

There is even some hazard to Clinton in the very real possibility that the airlift simply won't work. Some experts are arguing that the supplies won't reach those who need them. Others fear the drop could encourage Serbian attacks on the U.N. attempt to supply the besieged with convoys of trucks now being allowed to pass.

Thus, there is the danger that the new president will appear to have made a dumb decision if not necessarily a dangerous one. And that is why it is more than the no-brainer than it otherwise might seem.

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