Clinton's poll ratings leap as Bosnian policy bears fruit

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Thanks to new-found resolve, sound judgement and a dollop of luck, President Bill Clinton may be about to turn his long- criticised Balkans policy into a success unthinkable a month ago, and one which improves his chances of re-election next year.

A suddenly energised American diplomacy has been largely responsible for bringing peace in Bosnia closer than ever.

The achievements of the past fortnight - agreement by the combatants on a territorial division of Bosnia and progress towards lifting the siege of Sarajevo - are boosting Mr Clinton's standing: a Time/CNN poll this weekend found that 44 per cent of voters now approve his handling of the Bosnia crisis, up from 36 per cent in June.

Bosnia may be a factor in explaining his better showing in relation to the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole. Mr Dole, seen as front- runner for the Republican nomination, has criticised the administration's performance in the Balkans and is the prime mover in Congress for a lifting of the UN arms embargo on Bosnia.

Earlier this year he regularly got the best of Mr Clinton. But since the President vetoed the bill instructing him to scrap the arms embargo, the situation has been transformed. Mr Clinton now comes out ahead of Mr Dole in a one-on-one contest by 45 to 40 per cent, according to the Time/CNN survey.

But caution remains the watchword in Washington. Bosnians, Croats or Serbs could renege on the undertakings extracted by Richard Holbrooke, the chief US negotiator. Should that happen, Mr Clinton's head would again be on the block, and Congress could then override the veto of the arms bill.

But assuming all goes well, the US is committed to providing 15,000 troops to the international force supervising a Balkan settlement. A refusal to send ground forces to Bosnia has been a constant US policy. In an interview with New Yorker magazine released yesterday, retired General Colin Powell, who is considering running for president, said the US "ought to send a clear signal that we're not going to get involved in this war". Now they could be taking casualties at the height of the election season, an eventuality for which Mr Clinton has notprepared the public.

But for the time being the Republicans have been deprived of the Bosnia card. Why, they may ask, if aggressive bombing has done the trick now, was it not used when the war began? Back in 1991 and 1992, a Republican administration under George Bush was in power, resisting any involvement.

One charge against the White House is that it has, de facto, sanctioned "ethnic cleansing" as a means to a settlement, and is tolerating behaviour by its Croat "allies" scarcely less repugnant than that of the Bosnian Serbs. Fortunately, the television coverage which shapes public opinion on Bosnia has shifted from bloodied Muslim civilians to Nato aircraft swooping on Serb targets.