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Clinton Sways Public With Bosnia Pitch

Rise in opinion polls favors US involvement but Congress is wary

ASK Americans whether they think US troops should be sent to maintain peace in Bosnia and most of them will say no.

Tell them that the soldiers would be sent as part of an international force and in the context of an actual peace agreement, pollsters say, and most of them will say yes.

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''What mitigates the public's concern is that we are participating along with others and that the United States is not bearing more than it's fair share of the burden,'' says Andrew Kohut, director of the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press, in Washington.

Getting that message across to the public has become central to the Clinton administration's strategy for winning congressional support for sending 20,000 troops to the former Yugoslav republic.

In a televised address to the nation, President Clinton told Americans that only the US could prevent the resurgence of a grisly four-year war that has produced a quarter-million casualties and 2 million refugees. Mr. Clinton also linked US national interest to stability in Europe, the loss of which has drawn the US into two world wars in the 20th century.

The risks are acceptable, the president said, because the mission has clear goals and limited duration and because US troops are being deployed to guarantee a peace treaty, not to end a civil war.

''America's role will not be about fighting a war,'' Clinton said. ''It will be about helping the people of Bosnia secure their own peace.''

Clinton's speech on Nov. 27 failed to impress most of his potential Republican rivals for the presidency. Speaking for many Republicans, conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan said Congress should not back troop deployment so that if ''disaster'' occurs, they can ''say it's Clinton's fault, it's Clinton's war.''

Dole supportive

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But the address drew more favorable comment from Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas who pronounced it ''a good statement'' that, depending on public reaction, may make it possible for him to support the president's decision.

The US troops would be part of a 60,000-member NATO force, which will be deployed immediately after a peace agreement initialed last week in Dayton, Ohio, is signed in formal ceremonies in Paris in mid-December.

The objective of the NATO force will be to maintain a cease-fire long enough to allow for general elections in Bosnia, the return of refugees, and the reconstruction of a country devastated by nearly four years of war.

A sampling of congressional offices in Washington indicated that constituents were far less interested in the planned troop deployments than in domestic economic issues. But the vast majority of those who wrote, wired, or phoned lawmakers were opposed to sending US soldiers to Bosnia.

Public and congressional concern is not matched in the Pentagon, where considerable confidence prevails about the viability of the planned peace mission.

Defense Department officials are convinced that the cooperation of the rival Bosnian factions will minimize opposition to the NATO force. The sheer size of the force plus liberal rules of engagement will make it possible to retaliate convincingly if the multilateral force is challenged by would-be violators, Pentagon officials say.

As for comparisons with failed peace missions in the past, including Lebanon and Somalia, administration spokesmen point to what they say is a crucial difference: that NATO troops will be in Bosnia at the request of the parties to the peace agreement.

In his address, Clinton sought to downplay the military risks of the Bosnia mission, noting that US troops would be under the direct command of an American general and authorized to use overwhelming firepower in response to attacks.

''We will fight fire with fire, and then some,'' he said. But Clinton largely sidestepped the sensitive issue of the political role US forces will play in Bosnia.

Bosnia is not Somalia

The peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Somalia failed in part because US forces were seen to be allied with one side in a civil conflict. Given last summer's US-led NATO bombing raids on Bosnian Serb targets, plus the role US troops may play in rearming and training Bosnian government forces, many in Congress and the US public are concerned that a similar risk could exist in Bosnia.

''That bothers Americans because it means we are not a neutral power. We are a political player,'' notes William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. ''Clinton will have trouble selling the idea of sending military force on a political mission.''

Mr. Schneider adds that Clinton's hardest task will be convincing Congress and the public that the mission serves the national interest.

''Americans generally want to do good in the world but the question is, does this affect us in some important way,'' Schneider says. ''Aside from the obvious moral implications they want to know why this is in our interest.''

Analysts note that when President Bush rallied public support for sending US troops to the Gulf, he made his case on the basis of morality and international law. But that rationale would probably have been insufficient absent the more tangible reference point to US interests: oil.

To win public backing, analysts add, Clinton will have to make a convincing case that he can be trusted to pick his shots wisely.

''Since the end of the cold war, Americans don't want to see the US playing the role of sheriff,'' says Mr. Kohut. ''They want American leadership but they don't want to throw troops at every problem that comes down the pike.''

''American cannot and must not be the world's policeman,'' Clinton said. ''We can't do everything but we must do what we can.''

Public-opinion polls show that Americans who watched Clinton's speech on sending troops to Bosnia were 30 percent more likely to support his decision, but the nation is still deeply split over the deployment, according to a USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll.

The latest poll found that 9 percent of those who saw the speech were less likely to support the president's plan and that 58 percent were not swayed one way or the other.

A similar poll conducted for CBS News found 58 percent oppose sending US troops and 33 percent favor it. Still, 60 percent of those who saw the speech approve of how Clinton is handling his job, up from 48 percent.

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