WASHINGTON -- In political terms, the attacks on the Bosnian Serbs have given President Clinton a respite from criticism while exposing him to a far more serious risk in the future.
The NATO bombing has silenced, at least temporarily, Republican critics of Clinton in Congress who have been demanding an end to the embargo on arms to the Bosnians. And it has muted the complaints from many quarters that the president has never had a coherent policy for dealing with the carnage in the former Yugoslavia.
What it has not done, however, is change the basics of the political equation. There is no evidence that most Americans see a national interest of the United States at stake in Bosnia. Nor is there any reason to believe that Americans are willing to accept any significant casualties as a result of U.S. intervention in the bitter and protracted civil war.
But the operative question now, as it always seems to be in such military adventures, is whether the Clinton administration has foreseen all the potential consequences of the action in the months ahead. And it is in those consequences that the political peril lies.
The goal of the NATO policy now is clear enough -- that the intense bombing will force the Bosnian Serbs to participate in serious negotiations for a permanent settlement of the war. But the history of such bargaining over the past several years is discouraging. The enmity runs too deep to be papered over, and the stakes in any division of the former Yugoslavia are too high for it to be easy to achieve.
The theory of the NATO operation is that enough bombs will force the Bosnian Serbs into a more realistic view of their position. But, given their history, you have to wonder how long a period of intensive bombing would be required. And you have to wonder about the point at which the bombing itself will become seen by television viewers all over the world as producing more carnage than the results might justify.
The alternative if the bombing fails is the withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeeping force that has never been able to fulfill its purpose. And the U.S. commitment to such a withdrawal could involve 25,000 or more American troops for months -- meaning well into the presidential election campaign next year.
That's where the potential for a political nightmare lies -- President Clinton trying to make a case for re-election on domestic issues while the television cameras are focused on young Americans being brought home in body bags.
There is one precedent that makes clear how things can go wrong and how much of a preoccupation an international situation can become even when the national security is not directly at stake.
When the Iranians seized the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, neither President Carter nor his advisers fully grasped the potential political risks. When Hamilton Jordan, Carter's closest adviser, was asked in the first days after the seizure what the administration would do if the situation continued for several weeks, he replied, in effect, that a prolonged crisis was simply unthinkable.
As it turned out, of course, the crisis continued through the 1980 election campaign and became a dominant factor. Challenger Ronald Reagan used it as the ultimate evidence of Carter's weakness, and as the months passed voters increasingly saw it the same way.
The situation in Bosnia is quite different. There is nothing as clear cut as the affront to the United States involved in the Iranians holding those hostages. And it is hard right now to imagine Americans becoming caught up emotionally in a civil war in Europe. Opinion polls continue to show a high degree of isolationism in the electorate.
But if things go sour, there is no reason to believe that Clinton won't pay a price politically. He has always been on the defensive on national security matters, justifiably or not, because of his history of having avoided service in the war in Vietnam and his lack of experience in dealing with international issues as a governor of Arkansas.
It may turn out that the new NATO attacks will work. Or, if they don't, it may be possible to withdraw the U.N. forces without heavy casualties. In either case, Clinton will deserve some credit for taking action in the crisis. But, ironically, he isn't likely to get it from voters who never have shown much interest in Bosnia. As Jimmy Carter once observed, life isn't always fair.