Clinton Finds a General

August 13, 1993

President Clinton's choice of Gen. John Shalikashvili, now supreme allied commander in NATO, as the next chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff sends another signal to the Bosnian Serbs that the administration is getting tougher and may be on the verge of air strikes to end the "strangulation" of Sarajevo. His appointment came the same day Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared that saving the Bosnian capital would be "in the national interest," a goal he ignored only three weeks ago.

The nation's current top officer, Gen. Colin Powell, has been notably reluctant to use force in the Balkans. General Shalikashvili has been more nuanced, warning in one instance against having the military do "something wrong. . . out of frustration" and in another instance decrying the lack of American leadership in the Yugoslav crisis from its beginning. Overall, however, his attitude seems to have stiffened as his command planned for air strikes should they be authorized by NATO and the U.N. He has declared that Serbia's military prowess has been overstated, suggesting limited forces could be used "to strengthen the political process."

In any event President Clinton has found himself a general with a life story as a Polish immigrant whose climb from buck-private draftee to four-star general was clearly a factor in his selection. The president praised his appointee as "a soldier's soldier" and a "proven warrior, a creative and flexible visionary who clearly understands the myriad of conflicts -- ethnic, religious and political -- gripping the world."

General Shalikashvili has had many field assignments including service in Vietnam, the conflict Mr. Clinton avoided as a young man through academic deferments. As such, his support on any number of issues will be vital if Mr. Clinton is to repair his strained relationship with the military establishment. The president's defensiveness in this area has been reflected by his willingness, so far, to stay out of Bosnia on General Powell's advice and his acceptance of a compromise on gays in the military that did not meet his personal goals.

The Clinton-Shalikashvili relationship will have consequences far beyond the Bosnian crisis. Through his top general and Defense Secretary Les Aspin, the president will have to oversee a painful downsizing of the armed forces at the same time the world is beset with post-Cold War turbulence. This will require a far clearer definition of national security policy than has yet appeared and a new role for the U.S. as it deals with allies, international organizations and rogue regimes. General Shalikashvili's experience in NATO and his knowledge of the Pentagon bureaucracy should help. This appears to be a good selection.

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