The time has come


Washington -- ON THE central moral-military challenge of his presidency -- to lead the Western world in collective defense against bloodstained aggression -- Bill Clinton will be remembered in history as a man who feared, flinched and failed.

The policy long urged by Sen. Bob Dole was to lift the pernicious arms embargo to Bosnians who want to fight for their country, and to support the defenders with air strikes at ammo dumps and supply lines of the invading Serbs. Events have proved the Dole policy right.

But the other-directed President Clinton deferred to Europeans who secretly wanted the Bosnian victims to surrender. We now see proof that the Clinton policy was wrong.

The objective reader will recall the central argument made by the not-my-table set in the White House: that if "lift-and-strike" was undertaken, fighting would escalate, U.N. forces would have to be withdrawn, and safe havens would be overrun by Serbian forces.

So lift-and-strike was never tried. What has happened? Serbian attacks have escalated, humiliated U.N. forces are preparing to withdraw and safe havens are being overrun.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton's failure of nerve has led to this: The U.N. is reduced to huffing resolutions as impotent as the papal bull against the comet; NATO is revealed to be militarily muscle-bound, at the mercy of terrorist hostage-takers; Nazi-style ethnic cleansing is triumphant; and Bosnian civilians are being driven from their U.N.-guaranteed havens like cattle.

On top of that, Mr. Clinton's message to rogue states that shoot down a U.S. F-16 on patrol: We will not retaliate.

Ah, say Clinton apologists, but we kept our boys out of foreign wars. The truth is otherwise: By refusing to help the Bosnians fight their own war, Mr. Clinton has foolishly committed us to provide 25,000 U.S. ground troops to cover a U.N. retreat. "Clinton's war" risks American lives only when defeat is certain.

The White House is irritated at the attention being given the rape of Bosnia because this was supposed to be Vietnam reconciliation week.

Consider the march of his "commercial-Communist complex." It began by giving trade advantages to increasingly repressive China; it moved to conferring diplomatic recognition on Communist Vietnam; soon it hopes to help Castro maintain Communist control in Cuba.

Why? Because "the time has come" -- the bored slogan of the irresolute.

Mr. Clinton's shock-of-recognition theory is that trade and aid weave a web of contacts that promotes civilized behavior and democratic reform. But the new Clinton detente with China is not working any better than the old Nixon detente with the Soviet Union. Today's pragmatic passivity has emboldened Chinese hard-liners to crush human rights, to threaten expansion into the South China Sea, even to snatch a Sakharovian U.S. citizen.

Global sharks can detect blood in the water anywhere: If the U.S. isn't going to make a fuss about one of its planes being shot down in Bosnia, why should it complain about the seizure of the annoying Harry Wu?

Contempt is contagious. When you act weakly in one place, you are presumed to be weak elsewhere.

That is why Clinton's Carteresque avoidance of duty in the Balkans hits home: It is the source of the infection of weakness that now pervades his foreign policy.

Bosnia has given the world's bullies good reason to believe that the United States under this president can be had. Mr. Clinton piously preaches "engagement" but wimpishly practices detachment.

Mr. Clinton has turned a superpower into a subpower, stumbling down the U.N.'s road to defeat. Though the hour is late, in Bosnia "the time has come" to follow Mr. Dole.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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