Clinton-brokered peace accord carries major political risks Commitment to deploy U.S. peacekeeping troops could imperil re-election

November 22, 1995|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's success in brokering a peace agreement in Bosnia -- only the latest in a series of foreign policy triumphs -- carries with it political risks far greater than those involved in Haiti or the Middle East.

Indeed, the commitment to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia right before the presidential election campaign could be a make-or-break decision for his hopes of winning a second term.

Mr. Clinton already has shown during the last year an ability to play on the world stage that wasn't apparent in his first two years in the White House.

Now he has an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership qualities that even many of his supporters believe have been lacking in his first three years in office.

The operative question is whether he can bring the public into line behind his policy -- in the way, as a White House adviser put it, voters have "typically responded" to foreign policy crises by rallying around presidents.

There is, though, the real possibility that events beyond Mr. Clinton's control in Bosnia could stifle his re-election attempt next year.

Political strategists in both parties have been saying for weeks that the president needed to prepare the public for the deployment of Americans to the Balkans.

But Mr. Clinton waited so long, there is little time for an extended campaign to build support with an electorate increasingly hostile to the idea.

Opinion polls for the Wall Street Journal during the last three years define Mr. Clinton's problem. Asked in March 1993 about using U.S. forces to keep the peace in Bosnia, 43 percent said they would favor such a policy, 51 percent opposed it. Asked the same question last month, only 30 percent approved, 65 percent disapproved.

"It's not what you call an easy sell," said Peter Hart, one of the poll-takers.

The danger to Mr. Clinton lies in the possibility of heavy casualties among U.S. troops.

Fighting opinions

Conventional wisdom in the political community suggests that voters show little interest in foreign crises -- unless there is risk to Americans themselves.

That would mean the president has earned little credit in opinion polls for many of his previous foreign policy successes. As George Bush learned after the war with Iraq, even total victory has a short shelf life with the electorate.

And when things go wrong, public opinion can turn against a president very quickly.

In trying to make his case, Mr. Clinton is burdened by the perception of himself as a president without strong convictions consistently expressed on a whole range of issues.

Some argue, however, that this is unlike other issues.

"In this case," said Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, "no leader has been consistent. No administration has had a good policy on Bosnia or a consistent one. So we may be able to judge him on where we are now. It's not as if he were succeeding some administration with a bright shining record [on Bosnia] There may be a chance to force people to open their minds on this one."

The more serious problem of voter resistance to becoming involved abroad is reflected among Republicans competing for the nomination to oppose Mr. Clinton and by Republicans in Congress who demand that the president seek their approval for deploying the troops.

"I don't want to sound uncaring," said Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina, "but I don't believe that's a fight in which we need to have a dog." And "I'd bet more than 80 percent of the people in my district agree with that."

Mr. Clinton's potential rivals rushed to microphones.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas said he had "no confidence in the Clinton-brokered peace deal" and would oppose it. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana said, "We had better go into this with eyes wide open."

Supporters encouraged

But supporters of the administration found some reason for encouragement in the first response of Speaker Newt Gingrich that he was viewing the policy "skeptically but with an open mind."

Meeting with Republican governors in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich told reporters: "I am not prepared to vote yes but I would discourage any member [of the House] from automatically voting no."

For the president in an election year, it also could be politically disastrous if the initiative is seen as one lacking popular support -- and then goes sour. As President Lyndon B. Johnson discovered with the war in Vietnam a generation ago, that is the route to political oblivion.

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