Bosnia Policy Shakes Congress

Article excerpt

Sensing a turn from internationalism toward introspection, Congress found ways to avoid responsibility for Clinton's Bosnia adventure.

It was one of President Clinton's political heroes, a former representative and senator named John F. Kennedy, who remarked of his own presidency: "Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us' " As 20,000 GIs take up positions around the Bosnian town of Tuzla, JFK's comment could well become highly pertinent and no one in Congress misses the point.

Clinton's high-risk Bosnia strategy may decide whether his reelection bid dies early. If Bosnia becomes a fiasco of even larger proportions than Somalia, Clinton presumably can wave goodbye to his hope of serving another four years in the Oval Office and the Democratic problem of reduced numbers in the Congress will reach crisis proportions.

The Balkans, a region that has had only the briefest of peaceful interregnums in its long, bloody history of sectarian butchery, is to become a massive test case of the international global "engagement" policy the Clinton administration has been struggling to define. Somalia and Haiti--the administration's two previous ventures in international peacekeeping--were small-fry operations compared to the scale and challenge of the Bosnia intervention. Congressional reluctance to support the presidential decision to send U.S. troops into Bosnia was designed to leave the responsibility for anything that may go wrong in the Balkans with Clinton. "If the policy is a success, Congress will not take credit for it; if it is a failure, we will not be responsible," says Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. You may be sure he hopes so.

This will be Clinton's War or Clinton's Peace; but, as George Bush and Jimmy Carter can testify, while foreign-policy successes seldom are rewarded at the polls, defeats or retreats nearly always are punished. The Bosnia mission is fraught with perils, every one of which could lead to a breakdown of the peace or expose U.S. ground forces to serious risk. Logistical problems in the mountainous terrain of Bosnia, compounded by the normal harsh Balkan winter, will not make the mission any easier. The dangerous mix of forces GIs will face includes: Disgruntled Bosnian Serb groups who are smarting from the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord; 4,000 anti-American Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen fighters who reportedly already have killed one U.S. aid worker; and disaffected Croat units in the northeast. Snipers, of course, will be plentiful; land mines a constant headache.

But it won't only be Clinton's political ambitions that take a dive if Bosnia peacekeeping leads to U.S. casualties. A failure of peace in the Balkans is likely to stoke the fires of American isolationism, shatter the shaky institutional confidence of NATO and add to the confusion that has descended upon U.S. foreign policy since Soviet communism was cast into the dustbin of history. The stakes are much higher than the fate of the Clinton presidency, a point recognized by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain when he told Insight just before the initialing of the American-brokered peace agreement that he feared NATO cohesion was far more likely to be endangered by sending U.S. troops to Bosnia rather than from declining to deploy. "If we go there and take casualties and withdraw like Beirut and Somalia, then we are far worse off than if we had never gone," he said.

As Insight predicted a year ago, populist neoisolationist sentiment in America has grown in strength rather than diminished over the last 12 months. (See "At the Water's Edge," Jan. 16, 1995.) An opinion poll conducted for Time magazine in November found that 73 percent of Americans think the U.S. should reduce its involvement in world politics to concentrate on problems at home. On the presidential campaign trail, it is the nativist "America First" message of television commentator Patrick Buchanan that gets applause and not Indiana Sen. …