Imperfect Peace Dogs US in Bosnia

Clinton tells wary US troops: 'We can't do everything'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THAT the 15 nations of the European Union plus the United States have just signed an agreement (among other things) on reconstruction aid for Bosnia is a sign of the breadth of support for American-led initiatives in the Balkans.

But the measured enthusiasm President Clinton got from the American soldiers he addressed here Saturday indicates a certain shallowness in that support too.

Just as he was ordering the first 700 American troops into Bosnia Sunday, the issue of his own credibility as commander in chief was again put in question. More important, the constraints on American foreign-policy leadership in this post-cold-war era began to show. A US president today, it is becoming clear, must work with more partners for more narrowly defined goals - and do more of a selling job to the American people.

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Mr. Clinton's swing through Europe - London; Belfast; Dublin; Baumholder, Germany; Madrid, from which he returned yesterday - showed the self-described "domestic policy wonk" on a foreign-policy roll.

After meeting with leaders and the public on both sides on the sectarian divide in Belfast, he quoted the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, "We are living in a moment where hope and history rhyme."

His talk to the soldiers here at division headquarters should have been a pivotal moment for Clinton and his presidency: The former Vietnam war protester, now the leader of the free world, had to look the troops in the eye to tell them why they were needed as part of a NATO "peace implementation force" in Bosnia.

As in his speech to the nation earlier in the week, he emphasized the troops were being summoned to service, "not with a call to war, but a call to peace." He cast their mission in terms of individual human sufferings that they would be able to help end.

He reported on his meeting at the airport in Dublin, just as he was leaving for Germany that morning with Zlata Filipovic, the famous young Sarajevo diarist. Clinton said Zlata "asked me to thank you and all the American people for, in her words, 'opening the door of the future ... for all the children of Bosnia.' "

The troops he addressed, standing in formation in camouflage fatigues in bone-chilling weather, were the 1st Armored Division, "Old Ironsides," which will be headed for Tuzla in Bosnia within weeks. Their tanks, only partly visible in the mist, ringed the parking-lot-turned-presidential-amphitheater as a powerful symbol of the military force to be brought to bear in Bosnia, if needed.

Many of these soldiers served in the Gulf war, during which, in 89 hours of fighting on the ground, they effectively routed Iraqi forces. The multinational coalition achieved its stated goal. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, is still in place, however, and that rankles in some quarters, especially among critics of what they see as warmaking-by-consensus.

A third of a century ago, President Kennedy promised his nation that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend...."

A week ago, President Clinton told the nation, "We cannot stop all war for all time but we can stop some wars.... We can't do everything, but we must do what we can."

At Baumholder, the soldiers signaled their approval at several points in the president's speech with their traditional roar, "hooah!" The lines that received the loudest roar referred to use of decisive force. What received fewer roars was, "Everyone should know that when America comes to help make the peace, America will still look after its own." Perhaps it was the cold and the waiting.

Sgt. James Hesson of Irvine, Calif., thought Clinton had made his case to the American people. He pronounced the speech "good" and said he liked the president's historical explanations. "We understand that these countries of the former Soviet bloc are going through some changes - they need our help."

Specialist Curtis Ratliff of Beckley, W. Va., had another view: "Everybody feels the same way: Nobody wants to go and everyone's afraid."

Another soldier, who didn't give his name, sharply criticized the president: "He doesn't have the moral authority to issue the order [to send troops to Bosnia]. He has the legal authority but not the moral authority - not after what he did in Vietnam."

The president emphasized that the NATO troops were being "invited in" by the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, who are signatories to the accord reached in Dayton, Ohio, last month.

Over the weekend, however, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army, repeated calls for changes in the accord and blasted the NATO troops being sent to monitor it. "Those who bombed us have now infiltrated like lambs, saying they want to protect peace," General Mladic said.

In his speech, Clinton acknowledged to the troops, "There could be incidents with people who have still not given up their hatred."

"We're going in with a lot of details unwrapped-up," observes Sir Laurence Martin, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, speaking of the Bosnia situation.

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