President Clinton Monday night asked a wary nation to rally behind him in sending 20,000 U.S. soldiers on an admittedly dangerous Bosnian peacekeeping mission demanded by “our values and interests as Americans.”
In a televised, 20-minute address from the Oval Office, Clinton contended that only American leadership of a 60,000-member NATO peace force could support a peace agreement brokered in Ohio, stop the 3-1/2-year war, build a stable Central Europe and maintain U.S. credibility.
“America cannot and must not be the world’s policeman,” Clinton said. “We cannot stop all war for all time. But we can stop some wars. We cannot save all women and all children. But we can save many of them. We cannot do everything. But we must do what we can.”
And, Clinton said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
Facing a congressional vote on the question - with recent polls showing six out of 10 Americans believe that he had not yet justified the military commitment - Clinton sought to assuage fears of a bloody Balkan quagmire. “America’s role will not be about fighting a war,” he said. “It will be about helping the people of Bosnia to secure their own peace.”
Concluding his speech, Clinton said, “The people of Bosnia, our NATO allies and people around the world are looking to America for leadership. Let us lead. That is our responsibility as Americans.”
The president stressed that the mission, estimated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to require “about a year,” will be “limited, focused and under the command of an American general.”
Although U.S. forces are well-prepared, “No deployment of American troops is risk-free, and this one may well involve casualties” at the hands of “people who have not yet given up their hatred,” Clinton cautioned.
“I assume full responsibility for any harm that may come to them,” Clinton said. “But anyone contemplating any action that would endanger our troops should know this: America protects its own. We will fight fire with fire - and then some.”
With his speech, a president often perceived as shifting with the political winds was putting his leadership on the line. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said in a TV interview Sunday that Clinton would be making “the toughest speech of his entire public life.”
Clinton, while reserving a commander in chief’s prerogative to fly troops into overseas hot spots without advance legislative approval, has conceded that Congress can kill a deployment by denying funding. He is risking humiliation by seeking a non-binding resolution of “support” for his troop commitment. Former President Bush prevailed in a 1991 vote on the eve of Persian Gulf combat - after first sending 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia.
Legislators have not stymied a president’s military initiative since they cut off money for bombing Cambodia in 1974.
If, as widely predicted, they pass an artfully worded bill saddling Clinton with responsibility for his Bosnian venture, he potentially could gain a foreign policy triumph from Balkan peace - or lose the election if heavy American casualties mar his 1996 re-election campaign.
Congress’ decision is expected before a mid-December Paris conference where the Balkan peace agreement reached last week in Dayton, Ohio, will be signed. Complicating the picture, politicians are using Bosnia to score points against Clinton or other rivals in the 1996 race.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has rejected U.S. enforcement of an “unworkable” Bosnian agreement, in contrast to weeks of hedging by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Republican frontrunner. Also pressuring Dole Monday was Pat Buchanan, another Republican candidate, who called Clinton’s plan “wrong-headed” but a display of leadership that Dole should match with a strongly opposed stand.
Dole Monday night credited Clinton with “a good statement” and said, “I obviously want to support the president,” but he asked Clinton to keep making his case. In a CBS interview, Dole said he had told Clinton: “If you can’t persuade the American people, I don’t believe you can persuade the Congress of the United States - because this is an easy ‘no’ vote.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., offered no immediate reaction. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said Clinton “is still facing high skepticism from the Congress, for we see his plan as ill-conceived, poorly defined and highly dangerous.”
The administration is mounting a full-court press beginning today with a five-day European trip.