WASHINGTON -- The new NATO initiative designed to end the siege of Sarajevo may be unrealistic and dangerous but it also may offer President Clinton a way out of the awkward corner into which he has put himself on foreign policy.
Early into his presidency last year Clinton declared that it was time for the European powers to act "quickly and decisively" to end the carnage in the former Yugoslavia -- only to find himself ignored and politically embarrassed. Now he can claim, as he quickly did, a leadership role in the new ultimatum served on the Serbs requiring them to move their artillery out of easy range of Sarajevo within 10 days or face air strikes.
At the same time, the president also has shown a new willingness to join the other Western leaders in pressing the Bosnian Muslims to accept a partition of Bosnia, one they have been resisting for months, as the only realistic road to a peaceful settlement of the bitter and destructive warfare.
Clinton's problems in foreign policy will not be forgotten, of course. And if they might be, former President George Bush is there to remind everyone that his successor has been offering what he calls "start and stop leadership" in situations as diverse as those in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. If he had shown similar vacillation in dealing with the situation in the Persian Gulf three years ago, Bush told a Republican audience recently, Saddam Hussein would be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, today rather than in Baghdad.
It would not be surprising if Bush feels some secret satisfaction from Clinton's performance given the unrestrained way Clinton assailed Bush on his policy toward both Haiti and Bosnia during the 1992 election campaign. Although Bush can hardly claim to have done anything to improve the situation in the former Yugoslavia, he can claim with much justification that neither did he march up and down the hill making false starts and exposing himself to ridicule.
But, whatever the missteps of his first year, Clinton can now present himself as a leader acting in concert with traditional allies on the Bosnia question. The only significant opposition to the threat of air strikes has come from Russia, which is not a member of NATO and thus not in a position to block the policy.
There are, nonetheless, still some serious hazards for Clinton in his new resolve. The first, obviously, is that the Serbs will make a show of going along with the NATO demands, then thumb their noses at the rest of the world as they have done in the past. In that case, Clinton will be obliged to deliver on his promise of U.S. planes to carry out air strikes of Serb positions.
The dangers there are enormous, not the least being the possibility that the NATO policy simply won't accomplish anything. Many military experts are convinced that the air strikes can be only marginally effective in terrain such as that from which the Serbs have been terrorizing Sarajevo for almost two years now. Other experts, although they are a minority, say there considerable risk of casualties in such attacks.
The problem for the president is that he has not yet established the credibility on foreign policy to make a strong case with Americans that casualties are justified in Bosnia. That he is acutely aware of that factor was evident in his quick explanation that the new policy did not extend to the use of American ground troops.
Other things being equal, Clinton unquestionably would be happier if he didn't have to deal with the morass in Bosnia at a time when he would prefer to focus the national attention on health care reform. But these days the agenda for world affairs is set by CNN and the other television networks. Once they showed those vivid scenes of the massacre in the marketplace in Sarajevo, some genuine response from the United States and Europe became obligatory.
If the policy works -- a long odds proposition at best -- Clinton's fits and starts on foreign policy will be quickly forgotten. But even if it doesn't, the president will have demonstrated the ability to help forge a consensus within NATO that seemed impossible to achieve just a few months ago.