Burdens of a super-superpower Bosnia and Zaire: Clinton's interventionist policies not adequately explained.

November 17, 1996

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S commitment of troops in Bosnia for another 18 months of peacekeeping and in Zaire for humanitarian relief is a telling reminder of how much U.S. military policy is changing after the end of the Cold War. Confrontation with the Soviet Union, with mighty armies squared away at the Iron Curtain, has given way to low-level brush fires. The trouble is Mr. Clinton has failed to explain these changes to the American people and, in fact, has resorted to obfuscation.

Such a course is not dishonorable if he has definite goals that can be achieved only by gradually bringing public opinion around to his point of view. That, after all, was Franklin D. Roosevelt's tactic in the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War II.

But America's "vital interests" are not threatened by internal conflicts in the likes of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and East Africa. While the president may be convinced intervention is a proper way for the United States to exert its super-superpower role, he knows, as foreign nations also know, that such risky actions are inherently unpopular on the home front.

This explains, if it does not excuse, Mr. Clinton's deceptions in pretending that the 18,000 troops he sent to Bosnia last December could be withdrawn within a year. Anybody remotely alert to the situation knew at the time that this deadline could not be met. The likelihood that a follow-on force of 8,500 U.S. troops will be withdrawn by July 1998, as Mr. Clinton now suggests, will be greeted with skepticism.

Americans can have differing opinions as to whether U.S. forces should be involved in world trouble spots. But whatever their views, they have every right to demand that their leaders explain why this is a proper use of U.S. resources. This, Mr. Clinton has not done.

While he may be justified in claiming that intervention stopped vicious fighting in Bosnia, he glosses over the fact that the partitioning of the country has hardened, the return of refugees to their homes has not happened and the construction of a multi-ethnic government has barely begun. All could have been foreseen.

Perhaps the president is figuring that after repeated incursions abroad, Americans will start to take them as a necessary burden. Bosnia, for example, is offered as a test case for NATO; Zaire as a challenge to U.S. morality.

Intervention must, by definition, be a matter of presidential discretion. What is much less a matter of presidential choice is the defense of the country against real threats to "vital interests" as represented by international terrorism, Russia's remaining nukes, China's assertiveness and rivalry for control of Persian Gulf oil. Mr. Clinton, in assessing the post-Cold War world, has to take care that he keeps his military priorities in proper order.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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