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DIPLOMACY : Clinton Bets His Presidency on Bosnian Peace

November 26, 1995|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is now working on a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — It was the best of times and the worst of times for the Clinton Administration last week. The proclamation of an agreement to end the long Bosnian war was a triumph. Where President George Bush dithered and Europe failed, the Clinton foreign-policy team forced all the Yugoslav parties to make a real deal.

But this triumph is, potentially, the gateway to disaster. To get this agreement, Bill Clinton is betting his presidency on peace in the Balkans.

Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, respectively--and believed by many to be Nazi-style war criminals--now hold Clinton's political future in their bloody, unscrupulous hands.

Is this really wise?

The reason Clinton is this far out on a limb is simple: The price he had to pay for the agreement was a promise to send U.S. ground troops as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's peacekeeping force. Whether the Administration's full-court press wrings consent from a reluctant Congress or whether Clinton takes the constitutionally and politically dubious course of dispatching troops to a war zone against the expressed will of Congress, the American people will demand an accounting from the White House for any blood spilled.

The Clinton White House seems so intoxicated by the prospects for success that they have effectively ignored the risks. The economy is in good shape; Clinton is riding high in the polls, and his GOP challengers are increasingly unpopular. The White House seems to think a foreign-policy triumph in Bosnia will seal Clinton's reelection.

If things go well in Bosnia, Clinton will look decisive and strong. Lingering doubts among the electorate about his character and courage will be put to rest. He will be well-placed not only to win reelection in 1996, but to stand up against what looks to be a near-permanent GOP majority in Congress during his second term.

That's what happens if his Bosnia policy works. If things go sour--if there are more than a handful of casualties, if the agreement collapses, if hostages are taken and if the United States gets bogged down in a quagmire--public opinion will not forgive the man who made it all happen.

If Clinton, who avoided service in the Vietnam War, sends young Americans to what becomes a Vietnam-style engagement, he will be driven from office by a tidal wave of popular revulsion.

If he goes ahead without congressional approval and the mission goes sour, there will be calls--and not only from the rabid right wing--for his impeachment.

Clinton's reelection, which was beginning to look like a sure thing after Colin L. Powell's withdrawal, is now up for grabs. The Bosnia primary is the biggest hurdle in his path, and there isn't much his spin doctors can do to ensure he wins.

Stunned observers are left with two questions. First, why is the Administration taking this risk? Second, how will it turn out? Basically, political considerations aside, Clinton is taking this risk because he believes it is the right thing to do. He and his foreign-policy team are genuinely appalled by the horrors of this war; they also believe that America's standing as a superpower depends on their behavior in this crisis.

To some extent, they have a point. Though flawed, the Dayton, Ohio, agreement is the best possible under the circumstances, and it represents the best chance to end the suffering of a war that has killed 250,000 and made roughly 2 million refugees.

The Administration's views on superpower status are more controversial. Like the Bush Administration before it, the Clinton White House appears to believe that the end of the Cold War didn't mean the end of a U.S. policy of global containment. In the Cold War, we contained communism; today, we must contain chaos. If, the White House publicity machine tells us, we don't contain chaos in the Balkans, there will be a domino effect and chaos will spread.

For those who remember White House statements during the Vietnam War, this is chilling, but the Administration has made up its mind and staked its course.

So, how well will it work? Will U.S. intervention assure peace in Bosnia at an acceptable cost or will we be sucked into a quagmire?

Fortunately, there are some signs of genuine hope. All three sides are clearly weary of war. Serbia, in particular, has been both shocked by its defeats at the hands of Croatia and weakened by a tough economic embargo. Milosevic, once the most warlike and aggressive of the Balkan potentates, seemed almost cowed last week, making concession after concession to win an end to U.N. sanctions.

Beyond that, ethnic cleansing has produced the conditions for peace. The mixed mosaic of prewar Bosnia had Serbs, Croats and Muslims living side by side throughout most of the country. Today, that is--tragically--no longer true. Ethnic cleansing and pogroms have remade the Bosnian map; lines drawn in Dayton correspond roughly to the situation on the ground.

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