U.S. airstrikes in Bosnia expose policy deficiency

ON POLITICS

April 12, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Domestic U.S. politics no doubt was not the driving force in the decision to send American military jets against Bosnian Serb targets near the United Nations-designated "safe" town of Gorazde. As President Clinton noted, the NATO airstrikes were undertaken at U.N. request under previously sanctioned U.N. authority.

But the decision came at a time the president desperately needed to demonstrate some backbone on a major aspect of a foreign policy that has been increasingly criticized as lacking direction and resolve.

While the action was taken under the auspices of NATO, and one Pentagon official told the Associated Press that the fact American planes and pilots were used was simply "the luck of the draw," the missions will doubtless have more psychological impact, in Bosnia and here at home, by virtue of the direct and specific U.S. involvement.

The impression of weakness and confusion over foreign policy intentions and actions that has haunted Clinton from the outset of his presidency was not diminished by Secretary of Defense William Perry's comments on NBC News' "Meet the Press" a week earlier. Asked specifically if the fall of Gorazde would be acceptable to the United States and nothing would be done to stop it, Perry replied: "We will not enter the war to stop that from happening. That is correct."

The reply was widely criticized as signaling to the Serb attackers that they could proceed with impunity. The president subsequently said he didn't "think they have a green light" and said U.S. action "would really depend on, in part, what the U.N. mission wants to do there." But Perry's answer, and a statement on the same television show that while a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear weapons program was not

contemplated now, "I am not ruling that option out in the future," generated questions about who was calling the foreign-policy shots in the Clinton administration.

In the first nearly 15 months of his presidency, Clinton has marched up the hill and down again with tough talk and weak action regarding U.S. intervention not only in the former Yugoslavia and Korea but also in Somalia, Haiti, China and other trouble spots. In the process, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has also been painted as a weak cog in the foreign-policy apparatus, particularly after his embarrassing trip to Beijing, after which he articulated what was widely perceived as a softening of the American criteria for continuing to extend most-favored-nation trade status to China.

The president's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, likewise has been a shadowy figure heading a National Security Council that has failed to convey a sense of strength and influence with a president inexperienced in foreign affairs -- and conspicuously focused on the domestic reform that was the centerpiece of his successful 1992 campaign for the presidency.

There probably has not been a national administration so generally regarded as lacking a commanding foreign-policy figure in any of the top three related posts of the presidency, secretary of state and head of the National Security Council since the establishment of the NSC in 1947.

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George Bush all had strong foreign-policy credentials in their own right. Eisenhower also had John Foster Dulles at State. Harry Truman had Dean Acheson and George Marshall there. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had State Department careerist Dean Rusk in the job. Nixon had Henry Kissinger first as head of his NSC and then at State. Ford had Kissinger at State and Brent Scowcroft at the NSC. Jimmy Carter had Cyrus Vance and Edmund Muskie at State and Zbigniew Brzezinski at the NSC. Ronald Reagan had Alexander Haig and George Shultz at State. Bush had James Baker at State and Scowcroft at the NSC.

Only 15 months into his presidency, there is still ample time for Clinton, Christopher and Lake to establish a record of achievement and even brilliance in the foreign-policy field, with more demonstrations of decisiveness as seen in the use of U.S. forces, albeit under NATO auspices, in Bosnia. As of now, that decision stands out like a sore thumb.

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