Clinton in Wilson's Footsteps

June 09, 1994

President Clinton's only real diplomatic business during his largely ceremonial D-Day trip to Europe focused predictably on Bosnia, where U.S. policy has been moving away from the interventionism urged by Americans who see the civil war as a genocidal campaign by Serbs against Muslims. When Mr. Clinton spoke before the French General Assembly, the Balkans were very much on his agenda -- as they were when Woodrow Wilson was accorded the same honor on Feb. 3, 1919.

At that time, U.S. allies in World War I were carving up the map of Europe, a process that included formation of the new state of Yugoslavia. The Sun on the day of Wilson's speech reported that "territorial claims in the Balkans are complicated and present difficult problems." It noted "Serbia's claims to take from the Hapsburg monarchy the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

How history does play tricks. Mr. Clinton, 75 years later, was back in the same place facing new and complicated territorial claims in the Balkans. He no longer pushed for lifting a U.N. arms embargo the French insist would intensify the conflict and put their 6,000 peacekeepers at risk. Instead, he adopted the European Union's call for a partition of Bosnian territory, with 51 percent going to the Muslim-Croatian federation and 49 percent to the Bosnian Serbs.

His readiness to accept French policies disliked by the Muslims was apparent. The president backed plans for a four-month cease fire despite Muslim fears that this would give the Serbs the chance to lock in place the 74 percent of Bosnian territory they now control. And he praised the "very positive" diplomacy ++ of the pro-Serb Russians.

What seemed to be carrying the day was not only the French threat to withdraw their forces if U.S. policy puts them in danger, but Mr. Clinton's own refusal to send U.S. troops to Bosnia until there is a settlement. Obviously burned by the fiasco in Somalia and civil wars breaking out on three continents, the president cautioned: "We must be patient. We must understand that we do not have total control of events in every nation."

He sought to reassure his audience that Americans would not abdicate world leadership or abandon Europe, as they did after Wilson's grand dreams fell to tatters. But he also had no remedy, other than a bland call for allied unity, for a world in which "militant nationalism is on the rise, transforming the healthy pride of nations, tribes, religious and ethnic groups into cancerous prejudice."

As President Clinton returns home for four weeks of health reform lobbying before flying back to Europe for an economic summit, his responsibilities will not let him forget the turbulent world out there. If he could draw comfort from historic comparisons, he would note that even as Wilson was speaking in Paris the Ukrainian capital of Kiev was falling to the Bolsheviks, France was avenging itself against the Germans and the Balkans were going through another scrambling of borders.

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