THIS week, President Clinton will try to use the potent symbolism of D-Day to rally Americans behind continued US involvement overseas on behalf of the democratic ideals GIs fought for 50 years ago.
That will likely be an uphill job, considering the nation's mood and Mr. Clinton's mixed record on foreign policy. But US officials see Clinton's eight-day swing through Europe as an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reestablish America's credibility as a world leader.
In fighting for an integrated Europe, ``the World War II generation created a breakthrough. This generation must now follow through,'' said a senior White House official at a briefing for reporters.
The challenge of invading Normandy and defeating Nazi Germany unified the country, creating a spirit of sacrifice and a shared purpose that enabled the United States to accomplish wonders. ``Our challenge today ... is to somehow find the same unity of purpose, the same spirit in time of peace to accomplish important tasks,'' the official said.
White House aides admit that this kind of military flag-waving does not come easy to a president who himself avoided the draft in Vietnam and has had a rocky relationship with the Pentagon. Thus, in a series of speeches over the last two weeks, the White House has been trying out themes and messages, tinkering with its rhetorical machinery to make sure things run smoothly once the high-profile appearances begin in Italy and France this week.
Too young to have served in World War II, Clinton even felt it necessary to school himself in the conflict's history. One White House dinner last week featured members of his Cabinet who had served in World War II and historians of the era such as John Keegan and Stephen Ambrose.
The president and his aides have taken to repeating one particular conclusion in Mr. Ambrose's new book about the Normandy invasion: it was a democratic way of fighting, in which individuals took responsibility and moved out without waiting for orders, that saved the US on the terrible battleground of Omaha Beach.
Thus D-Day commemorations do not celebrate victory over Germany itself and its allies. They celebrate ``the victory of an idea, a liberating idea of democracy,'' an administration official said.
Unfortunately, some aspects of the D-Day ceremonies that Clinton will participate in do smack of celebrating triumph over specific nations. Host-nation France has made a point of excluding Germany from the festivities. Russia, a member of the victorious allied coalition in World War II, was similarly snubbed.
The Soviet Union beat back Germany in the East while suffering tremendous casualties, and there are historians who believe Berlin would have fallen even if D-Day had never occurred.
In any case, the narrow guest list for D-Day activities ``not only seems outdated but wholly inadequate in today's international environment,'' noted Susan Eisenhower, chairman of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies and granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, in written comments last week.
Including Russia could have played a positive role in NATO's campaign to try and include Moscow in its Partnership for Peace program, notes Stan Sloan, a senior foreign-policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service.
Partnership for Peace is a kind of junior varsity that NATO has established as its mechanism of reaching out to the former nations of the East Bloc. It is one of the specific programs Clinton will be pushing in his bilateral meetings with European leaders on his trip this week.
Russia continues to make noises that it would like to participate in Partnership for Peace. But Russian officials also want some sort of recognition that they are not on an equal level with, say, Albania. They want some sort of sign that they have a broader importance to NATO members beyond the Partnership program.
While NATO seems receptive to this need, its members have not moved quickly on the issue.
``Russia is now in the position of having to beg,'' Mr. Sloan notes - a bad omen considering the strength of Russian nationalists.
Clinton's European swing begins tomorrow, when he leaves for Italy to meet the pope and the newly installed Italian government.
On June 3, Clinton will visit a US military cemetery in Italy to commemorate the Italian campaign, which preceded the Normandy invasion.
On June 5, Clinton will gather with an expected enormous crowd in Portsmouth, England, for a traditional British military ``drumhead'' religious service. He is scheduled to cross the English Channel for June 6 ceremonies in France on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.