Clinton has let others take leadership role on Bosnia


WASHINGTON -- It was easy for members of the Senate to cast crowd-pleasing votes to end the arms embargo against Bosnia. No one can watch the television films of the Serbs' savage "ethnic cleansing" without being horrified.

And the notion of the Bosnians being denied the weapons they need to defend themselves is abhorrent. Besides, senators don't have to carry out the policies they set. Their idea of dealing with a problem usually is to hold a public hearing.

But it would be a mistake to view the Senate vote as simply a political expression designed by Majority Leader Bob Dole to embarrass the White House and further his own campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The fact that 21 Democrats joined 48 Republicans made it a bipartisan as well as blunt repudiation of the lack of leadership by President Clinton.

So far, there is no sign that the president understands the seriousness of that demand on him. To say, as he did, that the United Nations has failed in its peacekeeping mission is to state the obvious. But it is not the equivalent of a policy for dealing with the chaos in Bosnia.

Clinton's failure of leadership is patent at two levels. He is, after all, the leader of the only remaining superpower and should be the one setting the policy for the Western allies, a role he seems to have ceded to the French this summer.

And as president he is the one who should be giving Americans a clear view of what is required of the United States in carrying out its international obligations. And he is the one who should be enlisting his constituents behind him in carrying out whatever prescription he writes for dealing with Bosnia.

The explanation of the president's inability to lead at home is, of course, all tied up with the war in Vietnam. Clinton seems paralyzed by the history of his past as an opponent of that war 25 years ago.

The conventional wisdom is that the voters are unwilling to risk American lives to save the Bosnian Muslims under any circumstances and especially so if the risk is ordered by a draft-evader.

At some point, however, Clinton will be obliged to ignore that history if he is to lead. He was not the only one who opposed the war in Vietnam, nor the only one who went to great lengths to avoid serving in the armed forces. That is ancient history, and it has nothing to do with how he carries out his responsibilities today.

Nor can the United States be paralyzed indefinitely by the "Vietnam syndrome." The risks of military involvement in Bosnia may not be worth the potential rewards. But the policy should be determined by the realities of the moment, not by isolationism dictated by the past.

In Clinton's case, the complaints about his leadership carry more weight because of his history on the war in Bosnia. During the 1992 campaign, he was quick to criticize then President George Bush for a failure of leadership, only to find the situation far more complex and intimidating than it seemed when writing a campaign speech.

Then in his first months in office the president demanded that the Western allies act "quickly and decisively" in Bosnia, only to find that no one was paying any attention.

It is clear, of course, that the political risks of military action in Bosnia by the United States are enormous. And those who know the most about the situation there seem at a loss to find a formula for the use of force that promises long-term stability in the former Yugoslavia. On the contrary, many of the experts doubt that achieving a permanent partition of the country is within reach.

There are also political risks for Clinton, however, in simply being unable to reach a firm decision and then carry it out. American elections rarely turn directly on foreign policy issues when there is concern about the economy or such volatile domestic questions as affirmative action. But the voters do want a president who provides what political managers call a "comfort level" on national security questions.

So the Senate vote that, in effect, wrenches the policy-making role on Bosnia out of the hands of Clinton is hardly reassuring in terms of either policy or politics.

By this time next year, when the 1996 election campaign is in full swing, the war in Bosnia may be off the television screens and largely forgotten. But Bill Clinton will be at a pronounced disadvantage if he is perceived by the electorate as a president over his head on foreign policy.

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