WASHINGTON — By taking prominent Republicans with him to Bosnia, President Clinton took a step toward assembling bipartisan support for keeping American troops there past the current June 1998 deadline.
But beyond the compelling symbolism, Mr. Clinton has a big selling job when Congress returns from recess next month.
The president used his 11-hour holiday visit to the war-torn Balkan nation on Monday to thank US forces, to nudge Bosnian leaders to do their part for a lasting peace, and to state his case to Americans.
The president probably will win grudging support from Congress for keeping the forces in Bosnia. But it won't come without a lot of hand-wringing. "We're heading for an election year, and if this issue is not handled early, it will become involved with the normal flow of partisan politics," said Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia. Warner, who supports the president's decision, sees American forces in Bosnia for at least two more years.
Clinton hasn't had many foreign-policy victories in Congress. But, for the most part, he hasn't needed to.
There have been few flare-ups in the world on his watch directly involving Americans since the violence in Somalia early in his first term and the US operation in Haiti.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has rattled his saber from time to time, as he is doing now. And there have been tensions with China and North Korea. But, generally, both the administration and Congress have been able to dwell on domestic issues.
That leaves the president's foreign-policy skills a little rusty.
Furthermore, perhaps since there have been no US casualties, Bosnia has been languishing on Congress' back burner - even though Clinton has broken two deadlines for a promised US withdrawal.
The issue has been jolted off that back burner with the decision to keep US forces in Bosnia indefinitely. Critics such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich have warned that Bosnia could easily become a Vietnam-like quagmire.
Clinton and his allies point to slow improvements, including the fact that the fighting that claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced 2 million people over 3-1/2 years has been halted and the warring factions - Serbs, Croats and Muslims - have been demobilized.