A Case for Doing Nothing

February 11, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton, who has a reputation for not caring much about foreign policy, gets 5 or 10 ''decision memos'' each day from the National Security Council. They run, usually, between 2 and 10 pages and the last page has three boxes. He checks one of them, and the diplomatic, intelligence and military machinery of the most powerful nation in the world is set in motion somewhere on the globe.

Or, that incredibly expensive mechanism just sits there.

Whether the decision is about China or Bosnia or reassigning a couple of bureaucrats or ambassadors, the three boxes are predictable: (1) Do something now. Get in there -- even if that means ''Nuke 'em''! (2) Get out of there now. (3) Wait a while and let's see what happens. Maybe say something.

Almost always, the man at the top checks No. 3, the most moderate or least dangerous option. No. 1 is obviously the riskiest decision. No. 2 can be almost as bad; Americans are said not to love quitters.

But No. 3, making no decision, eventually does become a decision. In the end, deciding to do nothing is just as definitive as sending in the Marines. Actions have consequences, and so does taking no action.

Deciding what to do in Bosnia amid regular images of evil is as tough a decision as any a president might face -- or turn away from. For more than a year now, contradicting himself every couple of weeks or so, President Clinton has stood fast in indecision. He has been consistently indecisive. If he sticks with indecision, history will record that as his decision. Deciding to do nothing is an important decision -- and probably the right one in this terrible case.

What about bombing the artillery emplacements around Sarajevo? Fine, but I doubt that will amount to much more than a sign that we, Americans and our leader, feel bad about doing nothing. The pictures of the raids, which will be hailed as successful no matter what happens, are exactly what we need to blot out the horror of what has been happening in Sarajevo to people who look a lot like us. If such raids succeed and Serbian troops end the siege of the city or even the war itself, then we will have been proved wrong from the start, and a little dose of No. 1 would have worked a year or two ago.

The presidential actions talked about here are public ones. It is very possible that Mr. Clinton has, in fact, already signed off on other options, particularly to secretly supply weapons and ammunition to the Bosnian army, the Muslims trying to break the siege of Sarajevo and other cities, which the Serbs have used as shooting galleries when the Muslims were underarmed in the name of peace.

The president has always favored doing that with the approval of the United Nations, and European sources insist that recent Bosnian Muslim military successes were made possible by secret help from the United States. I personally hope that some ** of the Central Intelligence Agency's $30 billion a year in unaccounted or unaccountable funds is being used to do just that.

Mr. Clinton can afford a couple of secret military operations. Looking at our new, streamlined, post-Cold War defense budget, it turns out that we are spending almost exactly what we spent when wars were going on. The defense budget the president has just proposed totals $252.2 billion. Comparing that to past budgets in constant 1994 dollars, President Eisenhower's defense budgets averaged $243.3 billion a year and President Nixon's were $254.8 billion a year.

You wonder if anything will ever change. The best indication that they might is that Bosnia is not mentioned until the middle of the second page in the three-page list of Mr. Clinton's foreign-policy record issued at the end of 1993 by the National Security Council. That mention was under the heading ''Relieving Human Suffering'' and came after 11 headings focused on world trade and democracy.

That is as it should be in a world where we see problems rather than enemies. At this point, no matter how many opportunities have been missed in stabilizing what used to be Yugoslavia, the president's indecision is the best decision option he has.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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