Commentary

Another Bait and Switch in Bosnia

Most of Washington’s pundits give President Clinton high marks for his shrewd handling of the American military mission in Bosnia. They point out that the president has overcome bipartisan congressional resistance and a recalcitrant public in order to exert U.S. influence over the Balkan conflict. That much is obviously true, but should the American mission in Bosnia really go down in history as a foreign policy triumph for President Clinton? You decide.

Recall how this mission began. President Clinton announced his decision to deploy U.S. military forces in Bosnia on November 27, 1995. In a nationwide television address, the president declared that his proposed mission would be “precisely defined with clear realistic goals” that could be achieved in a “definite period of time.” What kind of time frame did the president have in mind? President Clinton assured skittish viewers that this mission “should and will take about one year.” The White House and the State Department then went to work to sell the mission to a skeptical Congress.

Throughout the 1996 election year, the Clinton administration led voters to believe that the one-year deadline would be adhered to. Even into late October, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns adamantly denied that there were any changes in the Clinton plan to withdraw 15,000 American soldiers from Bosnia that December. As far as the voters were concerned, Bosnia was a non-issue — especially since the Republican presidential candidate failed to express any interest in prolonging the military mission.

Within two weeks of securing his re-election, however, President Clinton suddenly announced a change in his Bosnia plan. “Quite frankly,” the president declared, the “rebuilding process” was taking longer than anticipated. Because of the unexpected delay, thousands of U.S. troops would have to remain in Bosnia — not just for a few more weeks, not just for another year, but for an additional 18 months!

Mysteriously, however, no cabinet official or military commander was dismissed from his job because of poor intelligence or planning. The timing of that policy declaration seemed designed for purposes of political cover. President Clinton spoke matter-of-factly and made it seem as if this lamentable extension of the mission was the result of an honest error in his own judgment.

Now, seven months later, the House of Representatives has finally voted to cut off funding for U.S. troops serving in Bosnia. The House measure is purposely designed not to undercut the president’s revised plan. The spending cutoff would not take effect until the president’s own self-imposed deadline of June 1998. The Senate has just expressed its own sentiment on the Bosnia mission by passing a nonbinding resolution that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops within one year.

That congressional activity has prompted complaints from the White House. President Clinton is upset with Congress because he now says that it might be necessary to keep the U.S. military involved in Bosnia even after June 30, 1998. Precisely when the president arrived at that conclusion (and when he had planned to tell the rest of us), he did not say.

What is going on here? Whatever happened to the president’s “clear and realistic goals” that could be achieved in a “definite period of time”? The American mission in Bosnia appears to be plagued by unclear and unrealistic goals. And the administration’s time frame for this mission appears to be anything but “definite.”

Somewhere down the road, historians may be able to establish whether the president knew all along that the troop commitment in Bosnia would be a long-term affair but deliberately withheld that information from the American people. By then, of course, it’ll be too late to hold Mr. Clinton responsible. In the meantime, we’re left with a nagging suspicion that we’ve been the victims of another cynical bait-and-switch ploy by the Clinton White House.

In light of all this, it’s unsettling at the very least to hear pundits in our nation’s capital describing this episode as a foreign policy “triumph” for Mr. Clinton. When U.S. soldiers are put in harm’s way, the American people deserve an honest appraisal from the chief executive of how well the troops are accomplishing their goals and how long it will be until they can come home. Instead, we’ve gotten one broken promise about troop withdrawals and every indication that we’re about to get another one. Our constitutional democracy is the poorer for it.

Timothy Lynch is assistant director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies and is the author of “Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record of President Clinton.”