WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has scored a political ten-strike by taking the leading role in brokering a cease-fire in Bosnia. But it is a success accompanied by extraordinary political risk.
After almost three years of following a policy on the former Yugoslavia that was perceived as shot through with contradictions and uncertainty, the president has finally asserted his leadership in a way that should dispel many of the doubts about his ability to deal with complex and vexing international issues.
25,000 U.S. troops
But the fact that a final success -- meaning a permanent peace agreement negotiated during the cease-fire -- would involve the deployment of up to 25,000 troops from the United States raises an obvious political risk when an electorate is as isolationist as the American electorate appears to be today.
Poring over the data from opinion polls, political strategists in both parties have become convinced there is little or no concern about the brutal fighting that has now been under way in Bosnia for almost four years.
Occasionally, public interest in "doing something" rises when there are particularly horrifying television pictures from Sarajevo. But there is no evidence the voters believe the U.S. has a vital national interest in the situation. And the argument that there are inescapable responsibilities that accompany being the sole remaining superpower in the world is too esoteric for most people to swallow.
Made in the USA
It is, nonetheless, a valid argument, and Mr. Clinton now has shown he is willing to do what is required despite the risks. The fact that the cease-fire was negotiated largely by Richard Holbrooke of the U.S., the fact that it was the president himself announcing the agreement here, the fact that warring factions will meet here later this month to seek a permanent settlement -- all of these factors stamp the cease-fire as made in the USA by Bill Clinton.
The president is clearly aware of the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to arrange a settlement among peoples who have been fighting one another for generations.
"We need to be clear-eyed about this," he said. "It matters what the parties do, not just what they say."
And he and his political advisers are equally aware of the political backlash that he might suffer next year if the agreement comes apart in a way that results in significant casualties among the young Americans who will be part of the "peace implementation force" that would be responsible for seeing any agreement is carried out.
One obvious hazard lies in the fact that this peacekeeping force will be operating under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although the NATO forces will be joined by troops from, among others, Russia.
As a practical matter, Mr. Clinton is in a position to give NATO its marching orders but it is not hard to imagine howls of complaint about his ceding sovereignty if things go sour.
In the line of political fire
More to the point, the president must carry out this delicate business with Republicans in Congress, including several running for president, just waiting for an opportunity to attack him for ineptitude -- the former governor of a small southern state out of his depth on the world stage.
What those Republicans know is that if the country as a whole leans toward isolationism these days, the conservative wing of their party already has gone all the way in that direction.
Under most circumstances, foreign-policy issues don't play a significant role in presidential elections. But as Jimmy Carter discovered dealing with the hostage crisis in Iran in 1980, the perception of an American president showing weakness or naivete in international affairs can be politically destructive.
At the least, Americans want to have what politicians call "a comfort level" on national-security issues.
Bill Clinton now has taken the responsibility for confronting the harsh realities of Bosnia. If the initiative succeeds, he can claim much of the credit. If it fails, he will get much of the blame, deservedly or not.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.