As US Troops Pack, Bosnia Doubts Linger

THE tension ripples across Staff Sgt. Bob Lefebre's broad brow. A few hours before the veteran airman had been ordered to leave that day for Bosnia.

As soon as he got word, Sergeant Lefebre called to pull his daughter out of school for a rushed, early Christmas. "She was crying when she opened up the door," the single parent recounted. "Her eyes lit up when she opened her presents. But then reality set back in."

The Lefebres and the families of the 20,000 American troops bound for Bosnia are already confronting what the decision to police a peace pact on the other side of the Atlantic really means. But the American people and their political representatives are only just coming to grips with this reality. And polls show that President Clinton is out on a limb, with most Americans reluctant to follow his lead on Bosnia.

But like most interviewed at this sprawling air base in Northern California, Lefebre does not question the president's decision.

"It's my job. I swore to the Constitution," says Lefebre, a member of the 615th Air Mobility Operations Group, which sets up and runs airfields like the American base in Tuzla.

The soldier knows the basics of that complicated war but offers his own simple rationale for being there: "Everybody should have the right to walk around and have their freedom. If that means we have to help them to have the peace to do that, we have to do it."

Few facts

Down the road, the Christmas shoppers at the glittering Solano, Calif., shopping mall express little support for the mission to Bosnia. "I don't think it's our responsibility to become involved in something that's not our business," says Steve Vaughn, a young preschool teacher from nearby Vacaville.

But like others interviewed here, Mr. Vaughn has a murky understanding of what the war is about and why American soldiers are being sent. "I don't know a whole lot about it," he says of the Bosnian war, reluctantly admitting that he can't even identify the three parties to the conflict.

The response in these quiet hills north of San Francisco Bay echoes charges that the Clinton administration has failed to effectively and repeatedly communicate the reasons for sending troops to Bosnia.

Evidence of this can also be seen in recent poll results. A Field Poll of Californians reveals that 49 percent still oppose Clinton's decision to send troops to Bosnia. Some 44 percent support the policy. About 6 in 10 Democrats approve, while about 6 in 10 Republicans disapprove, the poll from the independent Field Institute reports.

Nationally, although Clinton has gained support for his decision to send troops to the former-Yugoslavia, 57 percent still do not back the president's plan.

Unconvincing Clinton

Although Vaughn listened to the president's speech late last month, the teacher, who was a Clinton backer three years ago, wasn't swayed. "We've been left in the dark up to this," he complains. "All of a sudden, a decision was made by the president, without us being told ahead of time what is going on."

The residents of the community surrounding this base are sympathetic to the goal of aiding those who want to bring peace to a war-torn land. But even among those who support this aim, there is considerable unease about whether peace is really at hand in Bosnia.

"I'm wondering what we're doing there," muses Jerome Burch, who works in an electronics firm. "On the other hand, it appears both sides want peace. If that's the situation, I'm for sending a peace-action group in there. But if the bullets start flying, I'm for getting out of there."

This is not to say that there are not strong voices backing the men and women from nearby Travis Air Force Base. Gregory Manning, an African-American social security administrator, is passionate in his endorsement.

"This is 1995 and we let a country do what Germany did to the Jews," he says, referring to the "ethnic cleansing" carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia. "The question is why did we wait so long, not why is it worth going over there."

But Mr. Manning's views stand out for their clarity of understanding of some of the history of this conflict, gleaned he says from reading "three or four newspapers a day and watching CNN."

What seems most obscure is the argument, made with some force by Clinton, that American leadership of the Bosnian mission is vital to maintaining the security of all of Europe. "It's an excuse," retorts Jim Erickson, who travels the world for an engineering company and was brought up in a military family.

Whose policing job?

MSgt. Ron Tetreault also questions why the Europeans don't take on more of the responsibility for leadership. "Right now the other powers, since the end of the cold war, seem to be sidestepping and waiting for the Americans to take the major role," he says, talking outside an off-base sandwich shop.

"People in this country are very naive when it comes to world politics, and especially Europe," says Brig. Gen. George Williams, the commander of the 60th Air Mobility Wing based at Travis, the Air Force's largest unit for airlifting American troops all over the globe.

General Williams puts part of the blame for that on the American news media. "You'll hear Europeans say when they pick up an American newspaper - 'Gosh, there's no world news here. You Americans act like nothing else is going on in this world except what is going on in your own country.' "

The Air Force general also points to the failure to date of the American political leadership to shape a clear, post-cold war vision.

"It's a different set of values and circumstances now than has been the status quo for 40 years," he says. "We're still trying to come to grips with that."

New world order

In practical terms, the units under Williams's command are already in that new world. Because of their role in moving men and materiel, they have been deployed to every hot spot on the globe from Haiti and Somalia to the Kurdish zones in Iraq. Rather than the traditional 'war-fighting' mission, the men of Travis Air Force Base now find themselves doing far more diverse tasks.

MSgt. Samuel Bernal, on tap to head to Bosnia, proudly recalls his role in loading aircraft with ballots for Haiti's recent presidential elections. "I hope they're working toward having a society like ours," the teenage Air Force veteran says.

Meanwhile, he adds, "I'll go anywhere, anytime, so that what I've seen - the poverty, the fear - never comes within these borders."

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