WASHINGTON — THE point-counterpoint debate between the Bush and Clinton campaigns over how to deal with the crisis in the former Yugoslavia highlights a curious election-year anomaly. Suddenly it is the Democrats who are brandishing the sword, while Republicans advocate caution.
In many respects, the recent role reversal is more apparent than real. It is Republicans, after all, who urge caution in cutting defense spending. And it was mostly Democrats who dragged their feet as President Bush rallied support for the war to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Still, Mr. Bush's hesitant response to crises in Yugoslavia and Iraq has shaped an impression that Democrats may wield the firmer hand abroad, some observers say. Accurate or not, it is an impression that could shake the sturdiest pillar undergirding the GOP campaign: Bush's mastery in the realm of foreign affairs.
"The two parties have reversed on the use-of-force question in a way that can only undermine Republicans in domestic political terms," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Patrick Glynn.
The debate on Yugoslavia was joined two weeks ago when White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater described Gov. Bill Clinton as "reckless" after the Democratic nominee called for UN-backed air strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia. The charge backfired when reporters disclosed that similar views were held by leading Republicans in and outside the administration.
Mr. Clinton's call for the use of military force gained sudden credibility after news reports that Serbian forces were torturing and killing Muslim and Croatian civilians at detention centers in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Democratic challenger has also urged Bush to take stronger measures to force Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to comply with United Nations cease-fire resolutions.
The academic explanation for the role reversal is that liberals and conservatives tend to use different yardsticks for measuring the desirability of using military force.
Practitioners of a hard-headed brand of Realpolitik, conservatives generally counsel force only when America's national interests are directly on the line. Arguably they are not doing so in the case of Yugoslavia, despite alleged Serbian atrocities in Bosnia. Unlike Balkan conflicts prior to World War I, this one shows virtually no prospect of igniting a general European war.
For liberals, heirs of the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, who stressed the moral component of foreign policy, it is precisely the specter of atrocities that has galvanized support for intervention.
More mundane considerations may also account for the flip-flop on the use of force.
Clinton's detractors say his sudden hawkishness is sheer political opportunism, a reaction to the heat he has taken for avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War and for the criticism many Democrats have endured because of their reluctance to back the Gulf war.
As for Bush, he is convinced that the Yugoslav crisis cannot be solved by military means. Warning Friday that ground troops could get "bogged down" in guerrilla warfare, he has preserved the distinction between using troops to escort relief workers - a step the UN is likely to approve this week with strong US support - and using troops to punish Serbia or enforce a cease-fire in Bosnia, which he strongly opposes.
Clinton's more belligerent stance on Yugoslavia could help win back some of the "neo-conservatives" who bolted the Democratic Party after George McGovern's presidential nomination in 1972. Liberal on domestic policy and hawkish on foreign policy, neoconservatives could now be susceptible to overtures from the Clinton campaign, in part because of Bush's halting response to events in Yugoslavia.
Whether the United States intervenes or not, Yugoslavia is likely to end up an unexpected negative for the president, diplomatic analysts predict. "If Democrats can put pictures of babies being killed next to the president and say he's allowing this to happen, they can win votes," says Douglas Seay, deputy director of foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. "If body bags start coming home, Bush loses there, too."
The Yugoslavia crisis could also prove to be a win-win issue for Clinton, Mr. Glynn says. "If the US doesn't intervene, Clinton can lament the killing. If we do intervene Clinton can claim to have pushed George Bush into the arena."
The administration's hesitancy to confirm reports of Serbian genocide camps drew harsh attacks last week from congressional Democrats. After verifying the reports Monday, administration spokesmen backed off, saying the US had no first-hand evidence to go on.
Under mounting pressure, the Bush administration is replacing its emphasis on quiet diplomacy to resolve the Yugoslav conflicts with active measures to help Bosnia and penalize Serbia.
In April the administration dispatched humanitarian relief supplies to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and later took the lead in gathering support for international sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro. Last week President Bush promised to recognize Bosnia-Herzegovinia.
Far harder - for military, diplomatic, and political reasons - will be a decision to authorize the use of force against Serbia. Military experts say air strikes could achieve important objectives at low risk: interdicting military supply lines from Serbia and destroying the major assets of the Yugoslavian army, including tanks and artillery.
"Through air action plus an ultimatum to escalate, we can probably effect a psychological change in Belgrade's attitude toward the conflict and lower the morale of Serbian militias in Bosnia," Glynn says.
But many officials worry that, without ground forces to separate the sides, the bloodletting will continue. And they believe that domestic support for any ground operation would collapse as soon as the first casualties were incurred.