They shoot Serbs, don't they?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SOMETIMES it is important to read between the lines.

Take Bosnia, for example: Never has the high art of euphemism been honed with more enthusiasm or more lethal results.

Perhaps President Clinton, a man whose mind is full of glittering surfaces, would dream up a more rational approach to the Balkan war if he were not distracted by the rhetorical obfuscations. The president is a man of great intelligence and short attention span: Shiny words attract him, hither and yon, the way a silver rattle distracts a toddler.

U.N. forces in Bosnia are called not soldiers, but peacekeepers -- the kind of warm and fuzzy word that induces wishful thinking: Just send in the peacekeepers and you'll get some peace. A better word for them, as events the last few weeks have made clear, would be "hostages."

At one absurd low point recently, Serbs threatened to kill U.N. peacekeepers if the Americans sent in air strikes, while the Muslim leaders threatened to kill them if we didn't, marking the first time U.N. peacekeepers had been threatened by both sides in a conflict.

Think how it would focus the president's mind were the question framed as: Should American ground hostages be sent in to reinforce U.N. hostages? And what about the so-called "U.N. safe areas"? They might be more accurately renamed "concentration camps," so that civilians who conveniently gather there can do so under no misapprehensions as to the likely result.

Weariness with the executive branch's confused policy led the Senate to deliver an unprecedented sharp, public rebuke to a sitting president. Twenty-one Democrats, including elder statesmen such as Sam Nunn of Gerogia and Patrick Moynihan of New York, broke ranks to join the GOP vote to lift unilaterally the U.N. arms embargo. "We owe it to the victims who had shed their blood," as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut explained.

In one sense this tantrum on the Senate's part is understandable. After all, not only is current American policy indefensible, it is politically untenable. Only a minority of the American public in recent polls can identify the Muslims' foes as "Serbs." Most Americans can hardly justify interfering in the internal conflicts of a people whose name we can't even remember.

But as bad as the president's Bosnia policy has been, the Senate's action is almost worse. It's not that I disagree with it in substance. Simple justice suggests that the Bosnian Muslims be permitted to defend themselves. Every day that American policy prevents them from purchasing arms, we become unwitting accomplices to the Serbs' war crimes.

But the president, not the Congress, is or ought to be in charge of the nation's foreign policy. In a dangerous world it is unwise of the Senate to give tin-pot dictators the idea that, with CNN's help, they can make an end run around the president. And how can we expect to negotiate any kind of peace if the Bosnian Serbs do not know with whom to negotiate? Bob Dole? Sam Nunn? Newt Gingrich? The congressional cast of characters is endless. By contrast, there is only one president, and befuddled as he may be, we Americans have to stick behind him. We elected him, after all.

The Constitution gives the Senate the right to declare war and approve treaties, not to create foreign policy. Call me provincial, but I care more about maintaining American solidarity abroad than Bosnian policy of any stripe. We've had weak and indecisive presidents before; we will undoubtedly have them again. A country that survived the Carter Doctrine will muddle through the Clinton dithering. If Americans don't like Clinton's foreign policy, we'll have the chance to change it in November of '96.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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