PRESIDENT CLINTON'S decision to commit this nation to an interventionist role in Bosnia represents a logical extension of the chief executive's constitutional war powers as commander in chief.
There are solid reasons for questioning his decision, but in the end Congress and the American people have little choice other than to support him. To do otherwise, to renege on his commitment to our allies and the various parties in the latest Balkan war, would be a disastrous blow to U.S. prestige, reliability and leadership in world affairs.
History will have to judge the policy turnabout that has led the United States to assume the peace-making role that was fumbled by the European powers and the United Nations. History will also have to record how this fateful entanglement turns out -- and in so doing will color all perceptions from beginning to end.
After Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and Kuwait, Bosnia looms as a defining event in shaping American foreign policy. Vietnam made official Washington so fearful of taking casualties that when they occurred in Lebanon and Somalia, the United States executed humiliating retreats. The Gulf War liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation was a show of overwhelming power that all but eliminated personnel losses and became a model, writ small, for a successful Haiti operation that may now be going sour.
But what about Bosnia? We are reminded of Gen. Colin Powell's comment after smashing Iraq that the U.S. "does deserts, not mountains." Bosnia is laced with mountains.
Yesterday former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger talked of American tanks mired in Bosnian valleys, left with the risky choice of sending out patrols or of "bashing away" at Serb forces that already consider Americans as enemies, not neutrals. Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft fretted that Mr. Clinton has still not defined the Bosnia mission adequately or described a credible exit strategy.
Yet both these critics, for all their misgivings, advised the Congress to support the president. "The international credibility of the United States is now at stake," said Mr. Schlesinger. General Scowcroft, after describing Bosnia as a high-risk venture, said that "to turn our backs now would be a catastrophe."
Of special concern is the apparent administration decision to arm the Muslim forces so that they may better defend themselves against the Croats and the Serbs. It may be emotionally satisfying to assist the war's chief victims, but one has to wonder how the U.S. can enforce the peace at the same time it is arming the most aggrieved party. The mere act of partitioning a country the U.S. pretends is a unified state should be gyration enough.
Mr. Clinton, in the most important speech of his presidency, made as excellent a case for the course he has adopted as circumstances permit. "There are times and places," he said, "where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic interests."
Brave words these, especially because the ethnic hatreds of the Croats, Serbs and Muslims will not easily give way to peace, because U.S. diplomats already have had to deal with war criminals and because making the future of NATO hostage to a Balkan war may not be in the U.S. interest.
As for the Republicans, Mr. Clinton's stand produced an illuminating split between internationalist candidates for president, such as Bob Dole and Dick Lugar, and neo-isolationists like Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan. Senator Dole, a long-time critic of Clinton policy in Bosnia (often, in our view, for the wrong reasons), declared that "whether Congress agrees or not, troops will go to Bosnia. We need to find some way to be able to support the president."
This will not endear Mr. Dole to Clinton-bashers in his party. But it showed that he intends to keep the GOP a presidential party in the Eisenhower-Nixon-Reagan-Bush tradition, a party with an expansive view of presidential war powers. He thus opposes the GOP isolationist bloc that predominated from the repudiation of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations to Robert Taft's defeat in the 1952 campaign.
Within a very few days, the first of more than 20,000 American troops will be dispatched to Bosnia strictly on presidential orders. Under the Constitution, Mr. Clinton does not need Congress' approval but over the long run he will need the public support only it can muster. This will require an intense campaign of persuasion and, even more, a peace-enforcement operation that is widely perceived to be successful and of limited duration.
Now that the United States is in Bosnia, it must get out eventually under circumstances that do honor to our country.