Potential gains, losses are high for Clinton ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has raised the political stakes sharply with his demand that the Western powers act "quickly and decisively" to deal with the crisis in Bosnia. It was a bold move that eventually could pay rich political dividends or incur huge political losses.

At the most obvious level, any foreign policy initiative by the new president is important simply because he came to office without any of the conventional credentials in international affairs. Thus, any serious setback would be viewed as evidence that George Bush was right when he suggested repeatedly last year that the former governor of Arkansas would be over his head in foreign policy.

But the president has gone far beyond that concern by taking such a strong leadership role in trying to rally reluctant allies in Europe to step into the situation in a forceful way. He has made it, in a sense, "Clinton's war."

The problem here is that Clinton is acting in such a difficult context. His own approval rating has declined significantly since he took office, an inevitable product of his activist position on so many issues, and the opinion polls show no evidence that a majority of Americans share his belief that Bosnia is worth the military risks and costs that could be involved.

On the contrary, for more than a year now, opinion surveys have been showing a strong current of isolationism in the electorate -- opposition to foreign aid and to helping Russia as well as to intervention in Bosnia. The clear message week after week, as it was during the 1992 campaign, is that the voters want the government to focus on their domestic concerns, meaning the economy and perhaps health care, without worrying about what's happening in the rest of the world.

The result is a special pressure on Clinton not only to enlist allies in Europe and the Russians but also to persuade his own constituents that this is a necessary enterprise.

It may be argued with validity that this is what a president gets paid for -- taking the lead in making tough decisions that need to be made rather than simply reflecting popular opinion of the moment. And Clinton is showing the nerve to do just that in confronting Bosnia.

But it is equally true that the president needs to bring Congress along with him and that this will be far more difficult unless he can enlist public support for a strong course of action. The best guess right now is that mustering a congressional majority even for airstrikes would be chancy at best.

On the face of it, the cost-benefit ratio for Clinton doesn't seem particularly favorable. If an initiative in Bosnia fails and involves high costs in both casualties and the taxpayers' money, the president will pay an enormous price in credibility. He will be accused of neglecting his first priorities at home for a foreign adventure that turned out badly. Some of those opposed to intervention in Bosnia already are talking about the dollar costs of such a step, a factor usually not part of such debates.

And if the new president succeeds, the political gain can be ephemeral and transitory. No one in Washington has forgotten that George Bush's 90 percent approval ratings after Desert Storm were forgotten when the economy went sour a few months later. Nor have those with long memories forgotten that then President Jimmy Carter realized almost no political gain from a signal achievement in international diplomacy, the brokering of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

In Clinton's case, the political equation is somewhat more complex, however. Although he might not realize a long-term gain in his approval ratings by a success in Bosnia, any more than Bush did in 1991, the new president could earn a significant improvement in his image by proving he had the judgment and courage to confront such a situation directly.

At the least, he would put to rest questions about his lack of foreign policy experience. At best, he could get the kind of fresh start that would give him more clout on domestic policy questions.

The bottom line is that the same Bill Clinton so often accused of trying to please everyone is showing a willingness to play for high stakes even when he knows he has a hard selling job to do both at home and abroad.

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