WASHINGTON -- In purely political terms, President Clinton' handling of American policy on Bosnia is a classic case of making a bad situation worse. At the moment, this is one snakebit president.
The policy on which Clinton, Russia and the European allies now have agreed is an admission that the outside world has no hope of doing anything substantial to right the wrongs that have led to an estimated 130,000 deaths, left 2 million people homeless and given the Serbs control of 70 percent of the disputed territory as a reward for their aggression.
By permitting the policy of "ethnic cleansing" to pay such rich dividends essentially unchallenged, the great powers have, as Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York put it, agreed to "legitimating genocide."
As a political matter, the decision is even more indefensible because it was candidate Bill Clinton who criticized then President George Bush a year ago for his failures to act in Bosnia and it was President Clinton who only last month said the United States and its allies must act "quickly and decisively" in Bosnia. The new policy providing "safe" areas for the Bosnian Muslims falls light years short of anything of the kind.
The rationalizations of the president's course coming from the Clinton administration are, on their face, laughable. We are being told, for example, that the wonderful thing that came out of this whole situation was a success in finding a common policy with Russia, Britain and France. In fact, what has happened is that the United States has capitulated to the allies' refusal to act.
There are equally imaginative rationalizations for the U.S. decision against such options as lifting the embargo on arms for the Bosnian Muslims or directing air strikes at Serbian artillery positions.
Lifting the embargo, we are told, would produce only more casualties when the Bosnians fought back more vigorously. The Muslims and the Croatians are not such sweethearts, either, and all of the atrocities have not been Serbian, so why should we side with the Muslims? The United States has no overriding national interest in Bosnia. All of these are true up to a point, but they are also simply excuses for a surrender.
The real reasons for the Clinton policy are more fundamental. The first is that no one could produce a military plan that sounded practicable. Shutting down a civil war in Bosnia is not as easy as conquering Grenada, an exercise roughly equivalent at most to conquering Allentown, Pa. The second is that there apparently is no way to rally public support in the United States for military intervention in Bosnia, a necessary ingredient in any policy that would have risked American casualties.
These are reasons that most Americans are going to find acceptable because, like it or not, they are probably valid. But by charging up the hill and down again on the policy in Bosnia, Clinton has accomplished two things he might have preferred to avoid.
First, he has reinforced a picture of himself as a green rookie in international affairs who tried to exploit the situation politically, then had to back down. Second, and perhaps more important, he has disappointed those Americans, a minority though they may be, who believe bolder action was required for the United States to fulfill its responsibility of moral leadership in the world.
Indeed, you have to wonder if we would be so acquiescent toward Britain, France and Russia if there were oil in Bosnia, as there was in Kuwait. And you have to wonder if American policy would be so soft if the victims in Bosnia were, for example, Roman Catholics rather than Muslims. Neither of those suspicions may be justified, but it would be naive to believe such inferences won't be drawn.
In point of fact, it doesn't take vast experience in foreign policy to make decisions that make sense and offer leadership to both the electorate and our allies. President Jimmy Carter demonstrated that when he brokered the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt 15 years ago. A president always can hire the expertise.
But Clinton tried to have it both ways. He chastised Bush for a policy not essentially different from the one he follows now.
That is getting the worst of both worlds.