Clinton's lack of power is the lesson of Bosnia

ON POLITICS

April 22, 1994|By JACKL GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- American politicians are not allowed to say they are powerless to do anything about a problem. Such an adult admission flies in the face of the image they try to project when they are running for office.

That lesson has never been any clearer than in the dilemma President Clinton is facing in trying to present a picture of himself as taking some active and decisive role to deal with the disaster in Bosnia. He proposes to extend to Gorazde and four other Muslim towns the same "safe haven" protection given to Sarajevo two months ago.

But the president made the proposal fully aware that such an approach involving heavier commitment of air power already has been rejected by U.S. allies in the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And he also made the proposal in the face of a consensus among military experts that such airstrikes cannot solve the problem even if our partners were willing to go along.

The first fundamental weakness in this proposal is, of course, that it does not recognize the reality that only the use of ground troops in large numbers would have the potential for halting the slaughter of Muslims that has been under way for almost two years. But talking frankly about ground troops is politically impossible. Despite all the talk to the contrary after the Persian Gulf War, the Vietnam syndrome is still a powerful political deterrent to any actions that put young Americans at risk.

This president also has some different problems because of his own history. As a matter of elementary logic, the fact that he went to such great lengths to avoid the draft during the war in Vietnam should not compromise his authority as commander-in-chief. But there is no question some Americans, many of them veterans of World War II, are not comfortable with a draft dodger sending other Americans into harm's way.

Clinton also is carrying the baggage of his campaign rhetoric from 1992 and, in fact, some of his presidential rhetoric on Bosnia. When he ran against George Bush in 1992, it was easy for candidate Clinton to excoriate the Republican president's policies on, among other things, Haiti, China and Bosnia -- all cases in which President Clinton essentially has adopted or accepted the necessity for the same policies. Presidents of both parties keep discovering that things look different once you're in the Oval Office looking out.

In this case, it took Clinton a while. A year ago he was demanding that our longtime allies join us in acting "quickly and decisively" to put a halt to the carnage in Bosnia. Only then did he discover the limits on his ability to lead the coalition.

But, the president has no realistic political option except to try again to find a course of action that, first, offers some hope of success in Bosnia and, second, projects some picture of himself as a strong, knowledgeable and effective steward of foreign policy. He cannot simply say to the American people that the situation in Bosnia is essentially beyond repair, in some measure because neither Americans nor the French nor the British are willing to pay a high price in casualties to try to salvage something. That would be taken as an admission of weakness and further evidence he was ill-equipped for international leadership.

In the crassest political terms, whatever damage Clinton may suffer from foreign policy is not likely to be heavy in 1996, if only because Americans are so isolationist these days and so focused on domestic concerns. But his problems abroad do mean there is more pressure on the president to succeed at home.

So the only alternative for Clinton is to put the best face on a situation that has no redeeming features.

It might be wonderful to imagine politicians able to admit fallibility and get away with it. But you're not likely to see such admissions coming from any president -- or at least not in the first term.

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