Does Clinton's past color his military decisions?

Some analysts say lack of military service has led him to take a morecautious tack.

Just a few months ago, pundits wondered rhetorically how President Clinton - impeached and humiliated - could ever again command the respect a commander in chief deserves.

Now, respected or not, Clinton has sent United States forces on a high-stakes air assault aimed at ending the Yugoslav government's atrocities against its own ethnic Albanians.

Clinton's relations with the military, though better than when he first took office, have never been warm. And though the year-long sex scandal did nothing to enhance his image among a corps governed by strict codes of conduct, it also has no bearing on how the military does its job. Orders are given, orders are carried out.

But on a larger scale, Clinton's own lack of military service - and his avoidance of the Vietnam draft - has colored the way he has used the military during his presidency, analysts say.

"There's a real sensitivity on the part of the military to the risk of incurring casualties," says Andrew Krepinovich, a former Army colonel who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington think tank. "Look at how we've applied force."

Ever since the 1993 fiasco in Somalia, when US soldiers were killed in battle and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Clinton has tended to avoid military operations that involve lots of people.

Clinton is relatively careful not to tell the military to do anything that strays way beyond the realm of what it's willing to do," says Andrew Basevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

So if it's ground troops that go in massively, such as the Haiti operation in 1994, it's with "the very narrowest conceivable mission, and great emphasis is paid to troop protection as the No. 1 priority," Mr. Basevich adds.

In the current NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, operations involve relatively few people, thus risking few lives. The same holds true of the US's other current military engagement, the low-level air war against Iraq.

Of course, there's more at play than Clinton's personal vulnerability on the military issue. More than anything, memories of the Vietnam quagmire heavily brake any notions of massive involvements of ground personnel abroad. Some military analysts are skeptical that just air attacks will produce the desired effect in Yugoslavia - that President Slobodan Milosevic will stop the repression of Albanians in the province of Kosovo.

If the limited Kosovo operation is successful, that could work to improve the president's relations with the military. But if it isn't successful, relations may worsen.

"Given that we don't have an exit strategy, I think it could become a problem for him, not so much as judgments of morality but because armies don't like to lose," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research and Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

Clinton has also faced a challenge that any US president would have encountered at this point in history: What is the appropriate role of US force in the post-cold-war world, and how large a military does the world's only superpower need?

US military spending peaked in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan administration, and has declined fairly steadily since. Clinton has proposed increases for the future, but in the meantime, the military is grappling with issues of retention and recruitment of personnel. "US forces are badly overstretched," Basevich says.

He suggests a possible link between the US's military deployments and the fact that all the services, except the Marine Corps, are not meeting their recruitment quotas. He draws a link, too, with the high rate at which Air Force pilots are leaving the service for jobs with commercial airlines.

"We're using up the reserves of discipline and morale that have made US forces effective," Basevich concludes.

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