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Wilson's Lessons For Clinton

AS the United States and the rest of the West grope toward a policy on Bosnia, the reissue in paperback this month of August Heckscher's masterly work, "Woodrow Wilson: a Biography" provides a useful occasion to consider the parallels between Wilson and President Clinton, and to draw what lessons we can from troubles earlier in this century in the Balkans.

One cannot quite imagine that Wilson, the (self-described) dour Scottish Presbyterian, would ever have been code-named "Elvis" by the Secret Service, as Bill Clinton was during last year's election campaign. But the points of comparison between the two men, personally and politically, are considerable.

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For starters, Wilson was as much a policy wonk as Clinton is, relishing the details of government. Wilson was governor of New Jersey and before that president of Princeton University, but, born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and the Carolinas, he was the first Southern president since the 1860s. He was an intellectual president, no less than is Rhodes scholar Clinton; he was a compromiser and a consensus builder, who even as a young man seemed marked for some role in political leadership - although un like the Boy Governor of Arkansas, he spent considerable time in academia before he got there.

Like Clinton, Wilson was a Democratic president who came into office after his party had spent long years in the political wilderness during a run of Republican exuberance, if not excess. He was expecting to be a domestic-policy president, to make the kind of course correction for the nation that Clinton is seeking to make after the Reagan-Bush years.

History, however, intervened. For Europeans, World War I was the traumatic shock that brought an end to an almost unbroken century of peace across the continent. For Americans, World War I was the event that propelled the US into a role of world leadership.

At the start, it was not a role the US, or Wilson, sought. As Heckscher relates, when war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the president, distracted with the courtship of his second wife, Edith, saw his responsibility as consisting primarily of keeping the US calm in the face of turmoil abroad.

As war raged, the American policy was neutrality, and Wilson focused on getting German agreements to leave American shipping free from submarine attacks. He also worked for a peace conference - to the outrage of the British and French, who felt that this would only ratify German territorial gains, and that Wilson was failing to appreciate the Allies' moral claims.

He ultimately did ask Congress to declare war:

"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war ... but the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, - for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations."

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What are the lessons of the Wilson years for us today? Surely they must include an appreciation of how Realpolitik and the pressures for war can impinge on the noblest idealism of an academic like Wilson. But that idealism cannot be gainsaid, either; that we even use a term like "human rights activist" is due to his legacy.

Ours is the moral idealism of the global village: When the wars and suffering of a people make it into our living rooms via television, we want our governments to act.

How shall we have our governments act in Bosnia?

The discussion about use of force must move beyond air- strikes vs. ground troops into a clearer articulation of what the goal of the use of this force is or would be.

Heckscher speaks of Wilson's "almost mystical" ability to sense the trend of public opinion; the ability to discuss issues simply and straightforwardly was another great Wilsonian strength.

If there is to be a Western military intervention in Bosnia, the case for it must be made as Wilson made his case to the Congress in 1917.

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