A Man for the Hour

PRESIDENT Clinton's appointment of NATO commander Gen. John Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is one of several recent fine selections to top government posts, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and FBI chief Louis Freeh.

From appearances, General Shalikashvili seems exactly the kind of person Mr. Clinton needs. The administration has not found its step on the role of America in the post-cold-war world, where regional strife threatens to widen and destabilize, as in Bosnia. From his experience as a boy in war-torn Poland to his most recent assignment in Europe as a man greatly respected by the military leaders of the NATO countries, Shalikashvili brings a fine-tuned strategic, historical, and visceral understanding of Eur ope and Russia. And not a moment too soon. It may be no coincidence that, as the White House considers intervention in Bosnia, it chose to head the military a man who has criticized Western governments and the US in particular for not taking a lead in challenging Serb aggression.

In this, Shalikashvili feels very different from his predecessor, Colin Powell, who helped shape the Bush administration's hands-off policy in the Balkans. Shalikashvili disagrees with General Powell's assessment of Serb military capacity; moreover, he can weigh the argument of a Bosnian "quagmire" based on experience, since he served as a major in Vietnam.

Shalikashvili's command after the Gulf war of humanitarian relief to the Kurds in Iraq, an operation he became well known for, is also appealing. He became familiar with and supported the cause of the dispossessed.

Along with his contemporary knowledge of and relations in Europe, the new chairman will prove valuable to Clinton in other ways. He is known as a consummate staff man who has never tailored a public or political image, and whose authority is built on consensus. Clinton will probably have more room to maneuver with Shalikashvili than he did with Powell. It is doubtful, for example, that the new chairman would have openly criticized Clinton on the gay policy, as did his predecessor.

Colin Powell made his mark as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with near-legendary distinction. He has been an American role model par excellence.

America has often had the fortune of finding the right man at the right hour. "General Shali," as Clinton called him, may be that man.

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