Credibility for the commander-in-chief Clinton in Bosnia: Troops welcome a president once disdained by the military.

January 16, 1996

PRESIDENT CLINTON's whirlwind trip to Bosnia was a well-timed show of his authority as commander-in-chief. Many Americans may harbor doubts about his commitment of 20,000 U.S. troops to that war-scarred Balkan nation, but there should ,, be no doubt about his constitutional power to do so. Even a hostile Republican-controlled Congress has been relatively acquiescent.

For Mr. Clinton, the friendly welcome he received from G.I.s in Tuzla, headquarters of the American sector, came as an election-year bonanza. Because of his record in avoiding military service during the Vietnam war, the president encountered some ugly scenes early in his term as veterans and uniformed personnel showed their disdain. But the Haiti operation and his determination to enforce a peace in Bosnia have evidently bolstered his credentials within the ranks.

Since the first American troops arrived in Bosnia last month, they have encountered no overt resistance. The Bosnian Serbs, once triumphant aggressors, seem cowed for the moment -- even to the point of fleeing Sarajevo suburbs they once considered their birthright.

Difficulties have been mostly political, emanating mostly from Muslim and Croatian elements joined ever so tentatively in a U.S.-sponsored federation. After Mr. Clinton left Bosnia, trouble also flared when the Muslim-dominated government refused to go through with the biggest military prisoner exchange yet scheduled until the Serbs supply information on 24,000 persons missing and feared dead.

A far more promising development came simultaneously in the military sector as troops from all three ethnic factions pulled back from front-lines to create a 2 1/2 -mile buffer zone. Included in the multi-national force are the first 150 Russian troops sent into Bosnia in a cooperative arrangement with the NATO command.

Obviously, these are early days in Bosnia. The murderous hatred among Serbs, Croats and Muslims is unabated, and may even increase as the international community seeks to ferret out facts atrocities and tries to bring war criminals (mostly Serbs) to justice.

Mr. Clinton will be eager to proclaim victory in Bosnia as the November elections approach. He is pushing ahead with plans to have U.S. military veterans train the Bosnian Muslims, as Sen. Bob Dole has demanded, while some Islamic nations gear up to supply them with modern weapons. All this is a risky business, hostage to forces beyond U.S. control. It could spell disaster for Mr. Clinton, but for now he is undoubtedly grateful for early success.

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