The political risks for Clinton of the Bosnia deployment


WASHINGTON -- Looking at the quickie polls taken after President Clinton's speech on sending American troops to Bosnia, the equally quickie reading is that he is only inviting big political trouble on the eve of his campaign for re-election.

Telephone surveys of 500-plus voters by two of the major networks found they clearly opposed the deployment -- by 58 percent to 33 (CBS News) and by 57-39 (ABC News). A third poll of 632 voters, by the Gallup organization for CNN and USA Today, turned up 46 percent approval to 40 against, but 52 percent said they didn't think American interests were at stake in Bosnia and that the United States doesn't need to send troops there to maintain leadership in world affairs.

At the same time, however, 30 percent of those who watched the speech told Gallup they were more likely to support the president as a result, to only 9 percent who said they were less likely. And an impressive 60 percent of those who watched told CBS they now approved of the way Mr. Clinton was doing his job, up from 48 percent of the same voters a week before.

What these latter figures suggest is that the president has an opportunity, through further discussions on Bosnia with the voters, to win more converts. More important, by staking out an unequivocal position at the start -- he was not asking Congress to let him deploy the troops, he was telling them -- the president was demonstrating a leadership quality his critics have repeatedly charged he lacked.

His stand in the face of the ABC and CBS polls showing clear opposition to the deployment, and the CNN-USA Today poll results disagreeing with Mr. Clinton's basic premise that U.S. interests and prestige are at stake, hardly is the posture of a president holding his finger up to the wind of public opinion. You may not agree with me, he was telling Congress and the electorate, but I'm doing it anyway because it's right.

This stance is admittedly a politically risky one. If the deployment goes sour, with unexpectedly large loss of American life and/or failure to maintain peace in Bosnia, the president will face plenty of I-told-you-sos from Republicans in Congress, and especially presidential candidates like Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan, who categorically oppose the deployment and wasted no time saying so.

A chance to go wrong

Also, the time frame for the deployment allows plenty of opportunity for things to go sour. American forces are scheduled to be in Bosnia all through the presidential election campaign and the November election. But for a president whose decisiveness and leadership have been questioned almost since the day he took office, the deployment gives him a chance to change the way many Americans have thought about him up to now.

For all the huffing and puffing from the likes of Senator Gramm. President Clinton's decision to proceed with or without Congress makes it exceedingly difficult for Congress to buck him as American troops head into harm's way. The good legislators may not like it, and they will probably leave themselves an out by giving less than whole-hearted support, but they aren't likely collectively to refuse to finance the enterprise.

The deployment may well cause more political difficulty for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who has long called for more decisiveness from President Clinton on arming the Bosnian Muslims but has warned of sending in American military.

As a veteran of Capitol Hill, Mr. Dole knows the political risk of being seen as undercutting the president when U.S. forces are in the field. That explains why his first reaction was to say that ''we need to find some way to be able to support the president.'' (Senator Gramm, hell-bent on boosting his sagging presidential campaign, was as critical of Mr. Dole as of Mr. Clinton, thereby once again letting his hunger for the White House affect his judgment).

The president may well wind up a big political loser on his deployment decision. But it can also remind voters that he is the commander-in-chief, and isn't shying away from that role.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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