WASHINGTON -- As he sells himself to voters as a national leader, Sen. Bob Dole often boasts of having "made a lot of tough decisions" in his long career. Now he faces one of the toughest: whether to endorse Presidentincreasingly likely that he will support the troop deployment in the end -- very reluctantly and possibly at great risk to his chances for the Republican nomination.
"I'm certain some of my opponents on the Republican side will have a field day," Mr. Dole said.
Yesterday, in the basement ballroom of a Washington hotel, Mr. Dole walked a hushed audience of Jewish Republicans through the pros and cons of his personal Bosnia agony. His discomfort with his political dilemma seemed palpable, but there appeared little doubt about where he would wind up.
"I want to support the president if I can," he said, "even though the American people may not agree."
One reason for his unease may be that Mr. Dole, who is running for president as a World War II hero, would be tying his own political future, in part, to the military plan of the man he hopes to unseat next November. Perhaps that's why Mr. Dole seemed every bit as interested as the White House in the overnight polls on Mr. Clinton's TV speech Monday evening.
"There was a little uptick in support" among those who watched it, the Kansas senator reported. Though, as every Washington politician is well aware, most public opinion surveys also showed most Americans still firmly opposed to the deployment.
Mr. Buchanan, who urged Mr. Dole to "take a stand as I have," described those who would go along with the Clinton proposal as "Republican defeatists." Mr. Gramm, meantime, was quick to criticize Mr. Dole's apparent decision to go along with the plan.
"Senate Dole is coming very close to saying that the president has been making mistake after mistake on Bosnia for the last three years and that maybe this is the time to join him," Mr. Gramm said Monday night.
Mr. Dole has been longtime critic of Mr. Clinton's handling of the Bosnian conflict, and for three years has offered his own Bosnia policy -- though he never pushed it to a vote in the Senate. Yesterday, the senator ticked off a list of weaknesses in the U.S. peacekeeping deployment which, he said, "looks suspiciously like Lebanon in 1983."
A traditionalist, Mr. Dole has maintained that a president should be given the authority to conduct U.S. foreign policy. But he also seems to be looking ahead to the possibility that he might inherit the U.S. forces being sent to the former Yugoslavia.
"Who knows if we'll be out in one year? Maybe two years," he said, adding a warning that "what we don't want this to become is NATO's Afghanistan or NATO's Somalia."
Bosnian troops, he said, must be given training "so they can defend themselves. Otherwise, we'll never have an exit strategy." Administration officials are on record as opposing any training role by U.S. military forces in Bosnia.
At the same time that he is pointing out weaknesses in the deployment plan, Mr. Dole also appears to sense that the U.S.-brokered peace agreement has a chance of working. In addition, he appears to have concluded that the cost of blocking the Clinton plan now would be greater than the cost of approving it -- especially since Congress does not have the votes to cut off funding for the troops.
"I've said [to Mr. Clinton, after his TV speech], this is a good first step, Mr. President," Mr. Dole said. "I hope I can be in a position to support the president of the United States."
With the presidential primary elections set to begin in February, when the NATO deployment is in full swing, the danger for Mr. Dole -- and for Mr. Clinton, too -- is that a serious incident involving the loss of American lives, or a series of minor incidents that indicates the deployment is unraveling, would make Bosnia a major issue next year.
Gramm campaign pollster Linda DiVall said it was far too soon to predict how the issue would play out in the primaries. But, she said, "it could be a potential issue, particularly in New Hampshire," where voters seem especially wary of involving U.S. troops in a multi-national force.
Mr. Dole is already taking aim at his Republican critics. As he wound up his Bosnia talk, he struck a statesmanlike note.
"There comes a time when you have to be responsible, too, in America," he said. "If you don't want to be responsible, you shouldn't be asking to be a leader of anything, particularly the leader of the greatest country on the face of the earth."