No More Vietnams

As Clinton sets course on overseas involvements, he strives hard to avoid another quagmire

THIS week Washington looked at the world and saw the specter of the Vietnam War.

In the decades since the United States Embassy in Saigon was evacuated in the face of Hanoi's victory, Vietnam memories have always been part of America's summer - starting Memorial Day holiday. But they loomed especially large this year - both for the visible symbol of President Clinton's appearance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and in the less-noted substance of his speech.

America's military still seems deeply scarred by its involvement in a war that divided the US public. Its leaders long ago vowed to try to avoid the messy entanglement of a limited conflict, one they felt they fought with one hand tied behind their backs because of domestic political concerns.

In recent weeks, as he pressed for allied air strikes in Bosnia and a more forceful Western policy in the Balkans, Mr. Clinton has seemed to many in the military to be nearing a Vietnam-like quagmire. Even when Clinton's "lift and strike" policy was on the point of implementation, high-level armed forces officials grumbled that the White House had no clear idea of what it wanted the policy to accomplish.

Allied pressure backed the US off from its more forceful approach. Now the Vietnam analogy for Bosnia has won out in Washington as well, at least for the time being.

Clinton seemed to be speaking to the military's concern in his speech at the Vietnam War Memorial wall when he talked of "lessons" the US should agree on.

"If the day should come when our servicemen and women must again go into combat, let us all resolve they will go with the training, the equipment, the support necessary to win, and most important of all, with a clear mission to win," he said.

Clinton repeated those sentiments at Arlington National Cemetery - where the more decorous crowd did not include hecklers complaining about the president's avoidance of the Vietnam draft.

Reassurance of the military may have been only part of the message behind a presidential holiday spent appearing at the Pentagon's shrines.

The foreign policy soul of the new administration has seemed to be up for debate in recent days, and Clinton may well have thought it necessary to strike a firm, yet prudent pose for US allies as well.

At an off-the-record luncheon for reporters last week a high-level State Department official set off a policy flap by declaring that the US might withdraw from many customary foreign leadership roles.

The US must "define the extent of its commitment and make a commitment commensurate with those realities," said the official, who was eventually revealed by news reports as Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for policy.

It was beside the point that Mr. Tarnoff's comments were at heart banal - what thoughtful leaders would make a practice of international commitments they were not capable of keeping? In the world of geopolitics, where appearance is substance, Secretary of State Warren Christopher himself was rushed into play to combat the implication of weakness and US withdrawal from involvement in Europe.

Secretary Christopher insisted that Tarnoff was not speaking for the administration and that the US would continue to defend its interests overseas. "There is no derogation of our powers and our responsibility to lead," he said.

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