WASHINGTON -- In political terms, President Clinton appears to have bought some time with his plan to put more troops and armor into Somalia while promising to withdraw by the end of March. But he is also taking a high-stakes risk.
Clinton is gambling that voters will accept his explanation of the necessity for putting more forces on the ground, and that those forces will be successful in stabilizing the situation in Somalia without the heavy casualties that would brand the decision as mistaken.
The president is facing a skeptical audience. Opinion polls taken before he outlined the new policy found more voters disapproving of his handling of the Somalia situation than approving it -- a reversal of the usual tendency of Americans to support their president in any foreign policy crisis.
But his initiative at least rallied the support of congressional leaders of both parties, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the single most influential congressional figure on military questions.
There are still dissenters, some of them emboldened by the poll figures showing Clinton's vulnerability. Some are demanding an immediate withdrawal. Others are complaining that setting a specific deadline for withdrawal may encourage Mohamed Farah Aidid to stall for time. Still others contend the deadline should be much earlier than March 31, perhaps as early as Dec. 1 or Jan. 1.
The White House initiative was based on the premise that there is always a predilection in Congress to support the commander in chief in such situations, just as Congress supported President Lyndon B. Johnson in the buildup in Vietnam a generation ago.
In this case, however, there is a critical difference in the political context. The war in Vietnam could be defended, if not ultimately justified, as essential to halting the spread of international communism. In Somalia, there has been no such clear national interest to provide a rationale for policy; the original aim was simply to prevent mass starvation, a goal already achieved.
The president argues now that the success in reaching that goal late last year can be undone if the U.S. and U.N. forces are withdrawn and the field left to Aidid and perhaps other local militia leaders.
What is missing, however, is a clear picture of what Clinton intends to accomplish other than preventing more U.S. casualties and rescuing any prisoners that the Aidid forces have captured. The unspoken hope obviously is that Aidid himself might be taken and Somalia's capital city of Mogadishu pacified, but that apparently would require a more massive infusion of force than the president has ordered.
The inescapable inference is that Clinton's real goal is to find a way out that will not be defined by the rest of the world as an abandonment of U.S. responsibilities as the only remaining superpower, or in domestic politics as "cutting and running."
The available evidence suggests most voters are far less concerned about the U.S. image abroad than in avoiding more scenes of American servicemen as prisoners of a Somalian "warlord," or of American bodies being dragged through the streets by howling mobs of the same people who were ostensibly faced with starvation if the United States had not intervened last year.
With Americans preoccupied with their own economic concerns, is not surprising that they believe it is time for the Somalis to solve their own problems, just as they believe the Russians should.
But Clinton doesn't have the political credits simply to accept a failure in foreign policy. His lack of experience in foreign affairs and personal history of avoiding military service subjects him to much tougher political scrutiny than another president might undergo in the same situation. There isn't any particular logic in that reality, but politics is not always logical.
The bottom line is that the president may have bought some temporary respite from mounting criticism over the operation in Somalia and gained the breathing room to find a face-saving way out of the morass.
But it is something that has been achieved at considerable political risk.
The president has played the commander-in-chief card, but he must realize it is one he probably cannot play too often.