Watch out for the torpedos!

William Safire

April 20, 1993|By William Safire

DAMN THE torpedoes," barked David Farragut at Mobile Bay in 1864, "full speed ahead!" The Confederate mines, then called torpedoes, proved defective, and the Union admiral sailed to victory.

I am reminded of this gutsy leadership as I look out my window at the New York Times' Washington bureau on Farragut Square, with a statue of the naval hero looking sternly toward the White House, a pigeon atop his head.

There in the basement, behind a shiny brass plaque proclaiming "White House Situation Room," the Clinton Corollary to the Farragut doctrine is being shaped: "Go slow, make sure all our allies are aboard, catch the prevailing breeze of public opinion and above all -- watch out for the damn torpedoes."

Is this the way for the commander-in-chief of the world's only superpower to respond to the sustained slaughter in Bosnia and the mocking gratitude of the Serbian war criminals? No. Unless he is prepared to be branded a weak president -- to bear the consequences of the same irresolution in the Balkans that he was so ready to criticize in his predecessor -- Mr. Clinton must be ready to strike decisively on April 26.

That's the day after the Russian referendum. This month's White House reason for inaction in the face of perfidy is that he does not want to give Russian President Boris Yeltsin's enemies, who express solidarity with the Serbs, a leg up in the election. The Serbian forces have been making the most of this gift of time to escalate their war.

But that's just a matter of timing; beyond the romantic wish to be a domestic president, what are the real reasons for the Clinton reluctance to send American power to the rescue?

First is that he keeps poor company. George Bush had the benefit of Margaret Thatcher's rent-a-spine agency; Bill Clinton is afflicted with the umbrella diplomacy of Mr. Wobbly himself, Britain's John Major, who is taking the "special" out of "special relationship."

Next, he is a prisoner of the polls (who wants to die for Danzig or Sarajevo?) and of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, an Army general who thinks primarily in terms of ground troops to be used with overwhelming force, and only if the policy is backed with universal patriotic fervor.

Finally, he is the captive of his post-Vietnam multilateral rhetoric, so taken with fear of "going it alone" that he is incapable of going first and pushing and shaming others into going along.

As a result, we have meaningless sanctions, useless no-fly zones, publicity-stunt airdrops and U.N. relief convoys turned back while the Serbs go about talking while killing.

Here's why that's about to end: because television pictures of blinded children bring the atrocities into American living rooms; because the weight of editorial opinion is swinging behind action; because Republicans are pledging bipartisan support for action and planning to assign the blame for the consequences of weakness; because Mr. Clinton realizes that public revulsion at U.N. failure is beginning to stick to him.

Thus is our leader being led. This week, we will hear talk of arming the Bosnians and the use of air power against artillery shelling civilians.

But it will take three months to get modern firepower into Bosnian hands, and more time for training; Mr. Clinton should have already signed a finding directing the CIA to transfer arms.

Our "no-fly" pilots, under NATO command and festooned with U.N. limitations, are in reality laying out grids on photographic missions; they are certain their smart bombs can take out artillery pieces soon after the guns fire.

But that tactical response will not force an end to the fighting. Needed also is strategic coercion: "compellance" is the word now being heard in the Pentagon. It means the use of air power to persuade by punishment.

Compellance is not obliteration; it does not promise to win a war from on high. Rather, its sudden infliction of national pain -- shutting down electric power, fuel supplies and communications in a capital, putting a missile in a war ministry -- is intended to encourage negotiation by leveling more than playing fields.

We can hope that Mr. Clinton will jog over to Farragut Square for inspiration. One thing Bosnia presages: the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to be appointed this summer, will be wearing a uniform not of army khaki but of air force blue.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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