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Will Public See Bosnia Clinton’s Way?

Early this month, when President Clinton told members of Congress that he plans to send U.S. troops to Bosnia, the White House meeting room erupted in protest. “There’s very little support for this in the country,” one senator warned sharply.

“I know that,” Clinton replied, according to two people present. “But public opinion is very volatile on an issue like this. It will change if the president acts. I’ve got to decide this not on the basis of what public opinion is today, but on what people are going to say 20 years from now.”

Behind Clinton’s risky decision to send American troops lies a characteristic mixture of high ambition and hard political calculation - plus a new appreciation that decisive action on foreign policy can improve a president’s standing at home.

For almost three years, since his administration’s first days, Clinton has pledged that the United States would send peacekeepers if Bosnia’s warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims concluded a peace agreement. To back down from that commitment now - after U.S. officials helped negotiate the peace - would be “unthinkable,” a senior White House official said.

But the president faces a dilemma: The public doesn’t like the idea. A Los Angeles Times poll in June found that a whopping 61 percent believed U.S. military involvement in Bosnia was not in the national interest.

Clinton and his aides once quoted such polls as a reason for avoiding military action in the Balkans. But now that he must deliver on his promise, Clinton has told associates that he believes public opinion will move - as it has, historically, for every president who decides to send U.S. troops abroad.

Before every military conflict since World War II, when public opinion polling began, most Americans opposed sending troops into action. But as soon as the president asked for their support, they “rallied around the flag” and gave their approval, public opinion scholars say.

That is exactly what Clinton is counting on this time, probably with a formal television address.

“It is a given that the president will be going before the American people to make a case about the urgency of U.S. participation in helping to implement this peace,” White House spokesman Michael D. McCurry said. “The American people have questions about this. They know very little about the Balkans, but they know a lot about the horror and the bloodshed that they’ve seen for the last 3-1/2 years, and they know that the United States is in a position to do something about that.”