Pulling back from Bosnia costs Clinton politically ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

May 19, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's retreat on Bosnia may b prudent policy but it is clearly devastating politics. Once again, he is paying a price for hubris and big talk.

During the campaign last year Clinton repeatedly taxed then President George Bush for failing to take action in Bosnia. Then last month, seeking the political initiative, the new president put himself out front by declaring it was necessary to act "quickly and decisively" on Bosnia. The message was that Clinton intended to rally those recalcitrant European allies behind an end to the embargo on arms for the Bosnian Muslims and perhaps even behind airstrikes on Serbian artillery positions -- in short, the strongest action short of sending ground troops into Bosnia.

The political stakes in the Clinton declaration were always significant. This was a brand-new president intent on showing that his career as governor of Arkansas didn't mean he wasn't qualified to play effectively on the international stage. Indeed, he had already made one show of foreign policy acumen by allying himself so clearly with Boris Yeltsin in Russia. Now another success in the Balkans could put to rest any lingering doubts about his credentials, probably for the rest of his term.

But high stakes mean high risks, and now Clinton must live with the downside. The evidence is plain that his intense attempts to persuade the Europeans have fallen flat. To the naked eye, the U.S. position now doesn't look that much different from the policy of George Bush that Clinton criticized so freely a year ago.

Clinton also has suffered from a miscalculation of his own ability to rally public opinion at home. From the outset, opinion polls have shown Americans unwilling to risk either American resources or lives in Bosnia because they have not been persuaded there is a vital U.S. interest in the war there, as horrific as the pictures coming through the television sets night after night may be.

Moreover, those same polls show strong support for the view that Clinton should be spending his time and energy on domestic problems -- the economy most notably -- rather than becoming preoccupied with foreign policy. That same message is the one that sent Bush into early retirement last year.

Thus, Clinton seems to have managed the worst of both worlds '' politically. His tough talk has been exposed as just that -- talk. And he also has reinforced the picture of himself as being distracted from the main business at hand -- a picture he is trying to erase with his new campaign-like travels around the country.

The fact that a cautious policy toward Bosnia makes eminent good sense now misses the point. The situation isn't a bit different, except in degree, from what it was when the president was so insistent on acting "quickly and decisively" or, for that matter, what it was when he criticized his predecessor so cavalierly a year ago.

This is not one of those cases in which the president can claim with some justification that the circumstances have changed and he is simply reacting to those new realities. Instead, it is one of those cases -- like the Haitian refugee situation, for example -- in which it was always easier to seize the temporary political advantage than to carry through on a policy.

No one knowledgeable about politics imagines that Clinton's reversal on Bosnia is going to cause him any serious lasting damage with the voters. Although the decision may be extremely disappointing to liberals who have been most hawkish about the United States taking a role to save Bosnian Muslim lives, the issue is not one that has become a primary concern of most Americans.

Given the new isolationism abroad in the land, the president is probably coming down on the right side politically.

But presidential images are based on how presidents handle themselves in all sorts of situations over the months.

And this retreat contributes at least marginally to a picture of Bill Clinton as uncertain and perhaps a little green on foreign policy. It could have been avoided if the president had not been so assiduous about seeking the political advantage in the first place.

NTC But he took the risk and now he has egg on his face.

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