And Now, 'Clinton's War'?

For the World War II generation, the model of leadership was General of the Army George S. Marshall, the "Organizer of Victory." Marshall's motto was "Don't fight the problem. Decide it!" Steely and gruff, he was a Big Picture man; his only advice to the drafters of the Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe was, "Avoid trivia." "I have no feelings," he liked to say, "except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall."

Bill Clinton's style is more in tune with the sharing, sensitive '90s. The president respects feelings. He will listen and talk, endlessly. A policy wonk, he wallows in the details. And he will revisit a decision so often that at times he seems like a gardener who uproots his plants to see how well they're growing.

The Balkan crisis might have tested even General Marshall's capacity for decision. For Clinton, who would make the whole world his friend, the Balkans are a path to pleasing no one. He has made clear that he is going to do something in Bosnia. But he has never defined his ultimate goal, and there is precious little agreement on the means to get there. U.S. allies are balky and whiny. Congress and the president's own advisers are deeply divided. The American people are confused and wary. The Bosnian Serbs, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the hand-wringing to kill while they talk.

Dropping in the polls, accused of lacking focus, Clinton scarcely needs a foreign-policy crisis. The White House was particularly irked last week by Ross Perot's intimation that Clinton "might get a little war going" to divert attention from broken promises at home. But the president is caught in a maze of his own creation. Without meaning to, he seems to be suggesting that America is willing to play the role of global policeman, even at the risk of open-ended commitments, and casualties. After threatening to enter the fight in Bosnia, he cannot back down without looking weak and fickle. He has earned the sobriquet that presidents dread: Bosnia is now Clinton's war.

For a moment last week, it looked like the mere threat of force would pay off. Serbian leaders signed the Vance-Owen accord, dividing Bosnia into ethnic enclaves and ending the killing, or at least slowing it for a time. But then the unelected, self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb parliament refused to ratify the signature, announcing that it would hold a referendum on Vance-Owen on May 15. Surprised and disappointed, the White House publicly scoffed. The referendum was just "another cynical ploy to accomplish delay while they are rolling up additional territory in Bosnia," said Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Late Saturday the Serbs signed a cease-fire treaty with the Bosnian government-but previous cease-fires have quickly fallen apart.

Christopher will confer with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council this week, seeking agreement on Clinton's war plan for Bosnia. It's called the "fairfight option": arming Bosnia's Muslims and supporting them with air attacks on Serbian artillery positions and supply lines (following story). The White House would "welcome" a resolution from Congress calling for the use of force, but Clinton spokesmen are careful not to concede that Congress has the legal power to stop the administration from using force, though they do concede that backing from the Hill is a political necessity. Continued shelling of the Muslim towns of Bosnia could bring airattacks by the end of next week-sooner, if Serbs attack U.N. forces already in place.

Aside from a few hawkish pundits on the talk shows and op-ed pages, not many people are lining up to cheer for these steps. Christopher spent last week in Europe trying to persuade the allies to sign on to the U.S. war plan. Haunted by their own decades-old struggle in Northern Ireland, the British have no enthusiasm for arming the Bosnians and feel boxed in by the Americans. "We're trying to figure out why they're treating us like Iranians," sniffed a senior British official. The French were reluctant to endorse airstrikes. Paris fears that an air campaign will inspire the Serbs to take target practice on the Frenchmen serving as U.N. peacekeepers. In Moscow, Christopher didn't even try to sell Boris Yeltsin on airstrikes. It was enough that the Russians agreed not to rule out anything. Christopher's real hope is that the Russians will continue to lean on the Serbian government in Belgrade to stop the slaughter in Bosnia. One sign of progress: Slobodan Milosevic said he would cut off arms to Bosnia's Serbs. Since Milosevic is the bully boy who first promoted "ethnic cleansing," it would be perversely ironic if he emerged as a peacemaker.

Administration spokesmen were philosophical about European wariness. "No final sales, no final rejections," was the way a senior administration official summed up Christopher's trip. Clinton's advisers insist that the United States will not act alone, that Bosnia is a European problem that must be handled by the Europeans, too. Indeed, the arms embargo against the Bosnians can be lifted only by U.N. action, not by the United States alone. One American poll showed the public 2-1 in favor of airstrikes if the Europeans join in-but 2-1 against if they do not.

The Europeans have a healthy fear of the Balkans as a place where small wars become large ones when the Big Powers step in. The French, British and Germans may merely be waiting until this war is over. If Milosevic's goal is Greater Serbia, he is already 85 percent of the way there. A concerted last push could mop up the remaining 15 percent, although overrunning Sarajevo, with its thousands of Muslims, would be very bloody. The administration's fear is that the Serbs won't stop but rather push on into Kosovo and Macedonia to the south; though a ragtag army, the Serbs do not seem daunted by the threat against them.

It has never been quite clear what Clinton wishes to achieve in the Balkans. Freeing Bosnia is not a real option. It would take an invasion of ground troops, and Congress would not likely go along. Instead, Clinton is left to promote Vance-Owen, the plan to divvy up Bosnia into 10 ethnic provinces. Clinton is not a great fan of the proposal: it ratifies some Serbian gains from ethnic cleansing and would require a large NATO ground force to police it. America would have to contribute as many as 20,000 soldiers to stand guard-indefinitely. White House aides know that Vance-Owen is not exactly a noble standard to rally round. They prefer to offer "stop the killing" and "prevent a wider war" as the bumper-sticker rationales for U.S. involvement.

Without a clearly articulated goal in Bosnia, Congress is left to wage a windy war of historical analogies. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina compares the Serbs to the Nazis. But Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former naval aviator and POW, has been all over the airwaves comparing Bosnia to Vietnam. Clinton has quietly been consulting Hill lawmakers, but about all he can do is ask them to sound publicly supportive when they greet reporters in the White House driveway. The president's men say he won't make a televised Oval Office address to the nation until he has a more precise course of action.

Although one old friend described Clinton as "anguished" over Bosnia, a senior adviser insisted, "This is not the Cuban missile crisis, and he is not consumed by it." When the president heard the Serbian parliament had sandbagged Vance-Owen, he did not panic, says this aide, but calmly watched the end of an NBA playoff game on TV. While Clinton lacks George Bush's Rolodex of World Leaders I Have Known, he was on the phone a halfdozen times last week to foreign heads of state, patiently hearing out their concerns. Still, Clinton can sound peevish about Bosnia. At a press conference last week, he blamed his fall in job-approval ratings-- from the high 60s to the low 4Os-primarily on the distractions of foreign policy.

Clinton's friends say that he is at heart an internationalist who believes in a vigorous global role for the United States. He is a moralist as well who is easily moved by pictures of slaughtered children. Most of all, he is a government activist who believes that there is a solution to every problem, and that he will find it. When he finds an approach for Bosnia, he can probably persuade the allies, the Congress and the American people to go along with it. But he won't do it by interrelating. He must lead.

Would use U.S. ground forces--in a multilateral force

"More forceful long overdue."

"Failure to outrageous. It's genocide."

"The fig leaf Clinton has used to cover a do-nothing policy has vanished."

"This is a definable, doable mission."

"If governments are not moved by those pictures...they should be."

"Europe must not become combatants in a civil war."

"I don't have an all-out solution. Caesar didn't and I don't."

"If we go to force, there ought to be a clear exit point."

"There are no circumstances-noneunder which the United States should put ground forces in the Balkans."

"The situation would be worse if we failed--considerably worse."