WASHINGTON — AS his Bosnia policy twists and turns, President Clinton is once again finding out how difficult it is to interest the United States Congress and voters in playing global policeman for what often seems a chaotic post-cold-war world.
The mere possibility that US troops might help reposition United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia, as the White House announced last week, caused outrage to pour from Capitol Hill. Republicans were furious, while many Democrats studied the floor, inspected their nails - anything to avoid the issue.
It's a lesson the Clinton White House should have learned from the run-up to the Haiti incursion: When it comes to peacekeeping, Congress doesn't like surprises. The use of the US military in any sort of world-cop role requires a campaign of public preparation as surely as it does training and transport for troops.
Now the Clinton team is on the defensive over an important foreign-policy problem at a time when politics for the next presidential election is beginning to intensify.
Clinton's Bosnia Policy Takes a Trouncing in US
GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has hit the issue hard in recent days. "What is our goal in Bosnia, and what is our interest there? When do we tell the American people and make some choices?" asked Senator Dole in a broadcast appearance on Sunday.
Not that the administration has necessarily been eager to commit US ground forces to Bosnia service. The long-standing position of the White House has been that large numbers of troops would be sent to the Balkans under one of two scenarios: to help enforce a solid peace pact agreed to by all parties, or to help peacekeepers withdraw if the UN decides to quit the country.
Privately, at least one senior military commander has long worried that the administration hasn't made this commitment clear to the US public. His concern appeared well-founded last week, when in his commencement speech at the Air Force Academy the president appeared to suddenly expand this mandate to include peacekeeper "repositioning."
Administration officials thought the change largely a clarification and a means of showing support for Britain and France, which have provided many of the UN's Bosnia forces. But the storm of reaction has forced the White House and the Pentagon to insist that such a scenario is highly unlikely.
"It is becoming more and more clear that this is not an eventuality that stares us in the face right now," said Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It would take such a scenario as 300 to 400 trapped UN peacekeepers taking heavy fire for US troops to become involved in rescue operations, military officials say. They prefer to point to promises of US intelligence and equipment meant to aid the newly formed UN rapid reaction force.
A new unmanned US spy plane named Predator will be getting its first operational test in Bosnia, for instance, according to Secretary of Defense William Perry. The drone has been a high-priority Pentagon project. It provides better pictures and longer range than current, similar systems, Mr. Perry said. It could be particularly useful in the Balkans, where bad weather frequently forecloses the use of spy satellites or manned reconnaissance planes.
US ground troops won't take part in the new 10,000-man reaction force, Perry said. US warplanes, however, will likely give the force air cover. As of this writing, there was still no word about the fate of a US pilot whose F-16 was shot down over Bosnia last Friday. Pentagon officials said they had no evidence the pilot was able to eject to safety.
To some Republicans, the current turnabout in Clinton's Bosnia problems represents fair play. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton hit President Bush hard for not taking forceful enough actions in the Balkans. Now that he's in the Oval Office himself, Clinton is finding his options limited.
Senator Dole has long been outspoken about what the US should do about battered Bosnia's fate. He wants to lift the current UN arms embargo, to enable the West to arm the Bosnian government for its fight against Bosnian Serb aggressors.
Administration officials claim that such an action would actually lead to more US involvement in the fighting, not less. It would make the US in essence responsible for Bosnia's fate. The US would inevitably have to provide many of the weapons - and much weapons training. "It is an option that actually will lead to Americanizing the war," said Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, on Sunday.
Other GOP presidential hopefuls would go even further than Dole. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who has made foreign policy credentials a cornerstone of his campaign, suggests deployment of a 100,000-strong NATO force to help police the Balkans. It's likely that a quarter or more of such an army would be provided by US units.
According to White House press secretary Mike McCurry, "Everyone finds it easy to criticize US policy in Bosnia, but very few people in fact have proposals that make any more sense than what the president is doing."