Looking At The Big 'But'

I yield to no one in my lack of confidence in Bill Clinton," writes Norman Podhoretz, the famously corrosive neoconservative, in The Weekly Standard, "but . . ." Before we allow Mr. Podhoretz to finish his thought, let us contemplate that but. It may represent a significant moment in the history of the Clinton administration. It is Podhoretz saying he will follow the reviled Clinton off to Bosnia (for that, indeed, was Norman's nostrum). And yes, it is a grudging, disgusted acquiescence. But . . . Podhoretz does succumb, and so has the nation -- momentarily, perhaps -- to the broader notion that Bill Clinton is a credible president. He has reached an apogee of leastworstness, thanks largely to the nastiness and ineptitude of his opponents. His approval ratings have nudged past 50 percent. He has bought himself a new life.

Credit where credit is due: it's been a remarkable political revival. Just last April, Clinton was pleading: "The presidency is still relevant here." He seemed pathetic, a goner. Now the polls have him clobbering his most likely challenger, Bob Dole. And Clinton's other nemesis, Newt Gingrich, is about as popular as Richard Nixon in deep Watergate. The ascendancy is heavily mortgaged, though. It rests on questionable policies; it is very tenuous.

It is mostly a result of the clever, demagogic game Clinton has played on the budget. He has taken the popular, but wrong, side in what may be the battle of the next decade in the advanced industrial democracies: how to trim overgenerous middle-class entitlement programs. They were rioting over it in France last week -- and Bill Clinton has been out tossing Molotovs of his own, scaring the elderly about the future of Medicare. It has worked short term. It may work in 1996. Long term, however, it cements the Democrats as the party of reaction, favoring the elderly -- who are the wealthiest demographic slice -- over their grandchildren (who are the poorest). Republicans might have made the future-vs.-past argument and gotten the better of Clinton, but they weakened their ease by proposing unnecessary tax cuts and with a spokesman -- Gingrich whose distemper gave credence to the Democrats' wildest charges. The country pulled a Podhoretz: they didn't particularly trust Clinton on economic matters, but . . . Newt?

The president has been more noble on Bosnia than on the budget, if less comprehensible. For the past few weeks, he and his foreign-policy advisers have been trying to make the case for the operation -- and failing, mostly. There is a reason for this: there are no good arguments for sending American troops to Bosnia. There are, however, several compelling not-so-good arguments. The most compelling, the polls say, is that American "values" -- not interests, mind you -- are on the line. The "value" in question apparently is the public's discomfort at watching the murder and mutilation of European civilians on television. Of course, this value was on the line three years ago -- and it's on the line in lots of untelevised non-European places where big tribes brutalize smaller ones. It's not the real reason Clinton is sending the troops.

The real reason is: he said he would. Last week I tried to determine when and how this commitment was made. The National Security Council press office spent several days rummaging through official documents and located a letter Clinton sent to Sen. George Mitchell on Oct. 20, 1998: "I have stated that [a peace] enforcement potentially could include American military personnel . . . " There seems to have been no deep thinking, no policy process attached to the commitment -- at least, not back then. It was an act of presidential caprice, and guilt. He wasn't willing to send American troops to force a peace -- wisely, I'd say -- nor was he willing to enrage our NATO allies by arming the Bosnians, but he did'nt feel very good about that. Hence, the commitment: he'd send troops if peace ever materialized, or if U.N. peacekeepers needed to be rescued.

I would guess the president wasn't expecting either would happen soon, and certainly not in an election year. But, last spring, it began to seem that the peacekeepers would need rescuing -- an operation that combined danger and ignominy. Clinton chose instead to try to end the war by making peace, an honorable decision. The only way to make peace was to do what the Europeans had been proposing for several years: give the Serbs nominal control over the areas they had successfully brutalized -- and Richard Holbrooke did this (and did it well: negotiating a slim hope that a Bosnian state might evolve from the ethnic neopartition agreed upon in Dayton). There were opportunities for Clinton to wiggle out of his commitment. The word "potentially" in the Mitchell letter has classic Clintonian resonance. He could have allowed the Dayton talks to fail. But he didn't, and now the troops will go.

It's time to let Podhoretz finish his sentence: "but he is the president of the United States." And the president has the constitutional power to send troops to Bosnia. If he commits himself to do so and doesn't, if he allows his staff to negotiate a treaty on that assumption and then reneges, the United States loses credibility in the eyes of the world. This is not an argument that stirs the heart -- and it evaporates if "credibility" costs much blood. But it is the current bottom line in Congress, where support for the president started out grudging and has grown more so over time. In the House, a meaningless letter asking the president not to send troops gained more than 200 signatures last week.

Still, even the House seemed destined to take a Podhoretz: don't send the troops, but . . . we support the troops. That won't leave the president much leeway. But . . . he has managed to coerce a tentative, provisional sort of authority from a very skeptical nation, and that is no mean feat. He is our paragon of leastworstism.