Foreign policy dilemma bedevils Clinton

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AT THE heart of President Bill Clinton's foreign policy is the knowledge that President George Bush's triumph over Iraq in the Gulf war did not win him the White House in 1992.

Foreign policy is low in the priorities of the US voter. Asked in a poll what problem Mr Clinton should try hardest to resolve this year, just 3 per cent said foreign affairs.

This lack of interest explains much of Mr Clinton's policy on Bosnia. Whatever the rumpus on the editorial pages, the US public does not want intervention abroad. Involvement in Somalia was deeply unpopular. A White House official said the lowest point for the Clinton administration was when television showed pictures of the naked body of a US serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

Mr Clinton does not want to see similar pictures from Bosnia. At the same time he genuinely wants to be seen doing something to end the civil war. The result is a schizophrenic policy in which denunciations of the Serbs are followed by pleas for their co-operation. Given that all the world now watches CNN, it would not take the Serbian leaders long to calculate the limitations on American resolve.

Irresolution in the White House is not just a result of Mr Clinton's character flaws. President Bush and his foreign policy team, whose reputation rides so high today, were equally chary of being sucked into Balkan conflicts.

At certain moments public pressure for presidential intervention has grown. This is usually in the wake of some atrocity - such as pictures of half-starved prisoners in Serbian prison camps or the mortar bomb that killed more than 60 people in Sarajevo market. But even then opinion has been against any commitment of ground troops. Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs are unpopular, but they have never been perceived as demons akin to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leadership. There has always been more support for bombing Iraq than for bombing Serbia.

Equivocal American policy did not immediately outrage public opinion, but by the beginning of this week Mr Clinton was drawing harsh criticism from people who normally support him. On Tuesday an editorial in the Washington Post said: 'His expectation of low public support for air-strikes has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. His renewed suggestion for lifting the discriminatory arms embargo on Bosnia is delivered limply and to no effect . . . As Gorazde shudders under point-blank Serb shelling - a war crime by the way - he flees Washington for a rally of Mustang owners.'

This sort of denunciation reflects the views of a large part of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington. The occasion for criticism was Gorazde. But there is a longer-term fear that the shape of America's post-cold war foreign policy - above all, its future relationship to Russia, Eastern Europe and the West Europeans - is gelling in Bosnia.

As Bosnian Serb tanks moved into Gorazde, criticism of Mr Clinton began to feed into the network television news shows. These, in turn, affect public opinion and perhaps deepened the widespread perception - which the Republicans hope will win them back the White House in 1996 - that Mr Clinton is not much of a leader. None of Mr Clinton's critics, however, have been able to come up with a convincing policy of their own.

(Photograph omitted)