Posted on December 04, 1995 in Washington Watch

President Clinton’s decision to commit U.S. foreign troops to Bosnia is a courageous act of leadership. It is also a risky political move that may have a major impact of the future of his presidency.

Clinton inherited the crisis in Bosnia at the beginning of his term in office in January of 1993. During the ‘92 campaign then-candidate Clinton had been strongly critical of President’s Bush’s lack of resolute action to stop the slaughter and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Clinton’s first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell – a holdover from the Bush Administration – continued to oppose direct U.S. engagement in Bosnia during the first period of the Clinton Administration.

When in 1993 President Clinton did announce his intention to arm the Bosnians and strike at Serbian positions and sent secretary of State Warren Christopher to Europe to build support for the move, he ran into a new obstacle: the reticence of the U.S.’ NATO allies to support this policy which they believed would aggravate the conflict and endanger the peacekeeping forces stationed throughout the region.

As a result, the President found himself in a bind. The continuing tragedy in Bosnia tore at the conscience of America, but without European support the U.S. could not act. And so the nightmare continued.

Earlier this year the crisis on Bosnia came to a head. After Serbia overran two UN-protected safe areas in Eastern Bosnia and perpetrated new atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, the U.S. took strong action and struck forcefully at Serbian military positions. In the western part of Bosnia, the Bosnian-Croatian alliance (formed earlier this year with the assistance of U.S. mediation) turned the tide against the Bosnian Serb forces and gained control of large areas of the country.

It was this turn of events that moved the Serbs to the peace table. Four months of negotiation in the region and three weeks of intense talks in Dayton, Ohio finally produced a peace agreement signed by the Presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia.

On paper the agreement has many positive elements. If fully implemented, it will retain the unitary Bosnian state and may, in the long run, restore harmony to the deeply divided country. But there are many “ifs” that must be considered. Above all, the success of the agreement will depend on the ability of the three leaders to control their constituents. If radical elements of any side break the restraint of the leaders, the conflagration could reignite.

Essential to maintaining the peace in the interim period is the presence of the NATO peacekeeping force whose role it will be to assist the parties to implement the agreement that they signed. U.S. participation and leadership of that NATO force will be the key to the success of the peacekeeping mission.

The decision to commit U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping mission is indeed a risky gamble for Clinton, but one which he could not avoid. As disturbing as the Bosnian situation has been to the President and the American people, and as dangerous as a renewed and expanded war in the former Yugoslavia might be, the President realized that even higher stakes were at risk. If the U.S. failed in its responsibility to provide leadership in a vital NATO mission in Europe, the impact on U.S.-European relations would cause incalculable damage to U.S. credibility and leadership world-wide.

So, despite the dangers of engagement, Clinton made his courageous decision to act – to provide the diplomatic muscle to necessary to secure an agreement and to provide the military might needed to implement it.

If the waters in Bosnia are dangerous, the political currents in the U.S. can only be described as treacherous. And with only one year before the 1996 Presidential elections, the President is taking an enormous risk in confronting the isolationist sentiment that are particularly strong on the Republican far right.

With the exception of Senators Bob Dole of Kansas and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the other six Republican candidates for the presidency have blasted Clinton’s decision to send U.S. troops to Bosnia. They have been joined by the radio talk show hosts who are popular among grass roots Republicans.

The rhetoric against the President is extremely harsh, but it has nonetheless found support among those in the U.S. public fearful of losing American lives in a foreign war they don’t understand.

To their credit, Dole and Lugar seem to understand what is at stake, not only for the authority of the presidency, but for U.S. political leadership in NATO and the world. They have been joined by other thoughtful Republicans analysts and by the overwhelming majority of newspaper editorial writers nationwide.

But the analysis of U.S. interests is not as great a mobilizing force as isolationist fear. Congressmen are reporting hundreds of letters and calls to their offices that are 90% against sending U.S. troops to Bosnia. And so the White House has gone all-out to mobilize public support for the President’s decision. On a level equal to the campaign to secure passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the White House staff are working around the clock to turn the tide of public opinion.

The President’s compelling speech to the nation on November 27 began to turn the tide. On the day before the speech public opinion was opposed to the participation of U.S. troops in Bosnia by a margin of 36%-52%. After the speech, that shifted to 46%-40% in favor of U.S. involvement.

That narrow margin must be expanded and then translated into pressure on Congress to support the President. While the Administration feels hopeful that the more deliberative and responsible Senate will understand U.S. interests and support the President, changing the mind of the House of Representatives (dominated by newly-elected members) will be more difficult. In late October and early November in two separate votes, Congress passed non-binding resolutions overwhelming opposing the introduction of U.S. troops in Bosnia. One vote passed by a margin of 315-103.

The President has the authority and the determination to send U.S. troops with or without specific Congressional authorization – but as we have seen in the past, Congressional and public support is critical to sustain the mission, especially if, as expected, it proves to be a difficult one.

That is why the White House is so engaged in building public support for this move and why the Administration must remain engaged in sustaining public support during the coming months.

It is ironic to some that President Clinton, who was elected in 1992 as a President with a “sharp as a laser” focus on the domestic economy, has come to risk his presidency on the success of a difficult foreign policy mission.

Clinton has learned the lesson of world leadership. The U.S. cannot be an economic power and reap the benefits of an interdependent world economy if it does not continue to play a leadership role in the world’s political affairs.

Bosnia may be a dangerous mission with serious domestic consequences for the President – but failure to act would have been more dangerous and more damaging to U.S. interests world wide.

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