Cause for Unease Over Clinton's Flip-Flops

BILL Clinton seems well on his way to establishing an unenviable record as the readiest of all modern presidents to abandon previously made policy commitments. Of course, since he has yet to complete his first 100 days in office, he still has plenty of time to prove this criticism unfounded. But the pattern looks firm and, unfortunately, it probably has a source not easily disposed of.

In his first few weeks in office, President Clinton proposed things quite different from what candidate Clinton had promised. The candidate had stressed the importance of a middle-class tax cut, but the president quickly proposed raising taxes for most of the middle class, however the latter is defined. The candidate denounced his predecessor's policy on Haitian refugees as immoral, while the president left that policy unchanged.

Soon, the flip-flops went beyond abandoning campaign promises. In office the Clinton administration proposed changes in programs affecting private business use of federal lands in the West, only to abandon them just days later. A proposal on gays in the military gave the issue salience almost no one, including gay activists, wanted for it, and it has been followed by zigzags that have unsettled almost everyone.

Nowhere have his reversals been more sweeping or disturbing as on the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Clinton repeatedly attacked President Bush during the campaign for morally unacceptable inaction in the face of the escalating Balkan tragedy. He made calls for United States military action. For example, on Aug. 5, 1992, Clinton said, "I would begin with air power against the Serbs to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity." He also suggested lifting the embargo to permit Bosnian Muslims to buy


Three weeks in office, Secretary of State Warren Christopher signaled in a press briefing that the administration was backing off the candidate's argument for using force to curb the Serbs' advance in favor of support for an international peace process. Still, the secretary insisted the US had an expansive responsibility: "The United States is not the world's policeman.... Yet we are the United States of America. We have singular powers and influence," he stated at the Feb. 10 briefing.

By April 6 the tone of US policy had shifted again. Asked in a press conference whether "America's use of military force has been effectively ruled out," the president offered: "Well, it was - it's never been ruled in.... The United States is not capable of solving that problem alone." And, when asked if it was a fair summary of his position to say that he was "frustrated about the situation in Bosnia and that if there is no change in the position of European governments, that if they can withstand sanct ions, the Serbians will essentially be able to get what they want," Clinton answered: "That is what I'm concerned about. You got it. That's about as ... good a statement as I could have made myself.... I have not thought that the United States should or could successfully take unilateral action."

It's possible to make a case at once moral and expedient for the Bosnian policy that Mr. Bush consistently followed: When we have no vital national interest, as we had when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US must carefully limit its recourse to military action, lest the country's patience and readiness to sacrifice be overtaxed. No quick and easy military solution was available in Bosnia, and getting involved in a drawn-out military action, which might itself impose terrible costs in the region, was unwise. On the other hand, it's also possible to make a good case, as former ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and others have done, that the US should forcefully respond to Serbian aggression, if for no other end than to send a message to all who might be tempted that there is a price to be paid for such actions.

There is no basis, however, in morality or political interest for bouncing in a space of six months from a strong call for military action to an almost abject denial of US responsibility for the Bosnian outcome. Clinton has held his international resolve up to serious question and invited petty dictators elsewhere to test him.

Various interests constantly urge a president to do something. The only way he can stay on course is by standing on well-defined principles.

Abraham Lincoln's shining display during the crisis over slavery more than a century ago is still the best example of what coherent, disciplined, principled leadership can achieve. The fear is that Clinton has yet to arrive at such principles. Amidst the intense cross-pressures that are the routine of American political life, the lack of secure principles leaves him terribly vulnerable and unable to govern coherently.

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