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Clinton Now Faces Congress on Deployment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Clinton Administration now faces the formidable task of persuading an extremely reluctant Congress to approve the dispatch of U.S. troops to the Balkans to help carry out the peace agreement that has just been initialed.

The congressional vote could prove to be an epochal test of the extent to which the United States is willing to continue exerting the same leadership role overseas that it played during the Cold War.

Lurking in the background will be memories of the ill-fated Somalia peacekeeping mission, which ended after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in 1993. Never in this century has Congress succeeded in blocking a President from dispatching troops overseas.

Administration officials say they expect a showdown vote in Congress within the next few weeks. Before that, they say, President Clinton will probably deliver a nationwide television address that Administration officials hope will galvanize public and congressional support for the peacekeeping mission.

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“There’s no question this will be a very tough vote,” acknowledged one senior Administration official. “The President will have to take the case to the American people.”

Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), have criticized the Administration for not explaining why U.S. troops need to be sent to the Balkans--although in the wake of Tuesday’s accord they began to sound slightly more conciliatory.

At an airport press conference in San Diego on Tuesday, Dole said he wants to know more about the plan to send U.S. troops.

“He [Clinton] must demonstrate to the American people there is a national interest in sending American troops. . . . This [sending troops] is a promise he made on his own. I want to support my President, support my commander in chief, but he has to make a case, and he hasn’t done that.”

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But Dole also cautioned that “we must give the President credit for leadership. We have an agreement; it’s fragile, but it’s an agreement.”

Similarly, last weekend Gingrich told one television interviewer, “I just think it’s very dangerous to commit young Americans in a dangerous area without having the country unified behind them before they land, and I think the President has done almost nothing to explain to the country why his Bosnia policy makes sense.”

But on Tuesday in New Hampshire, the Speaker sounded a bit more conciliatory. “I am not prepared to vote yes, but I would discourage any member [of the House] from automatically voting no,” Gingrich told reporters, adding that the House will hold hearings on the issue next week.

Both Republican leaders have stopped short of outright, unqualified opposition to having U.S. troops enforce a peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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However, some of the Republican presidential candidates have gone further, saying they are absolutely opposed to any U.S. participation in the Bosnian peacekeeping mission.

“The civil war in Bosnia is a tragedy, but it must be plain even to President Clinton that the American people will not permit U.S. soldiers to die there,” Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said in a statement Tuesday. “Adding American names to the casualty lists cannot save Bosnia and, even if the U.S. uses massive force to impose a temporary, artificial peace, the war would resume on the day we left as if nothing had happened.”

Still, Administration officials hope some members of Congress will change their minds soon, as they face a final, up-or-down vote on the Bosnian mission.

“Up until now, all the congressional opposition has been hypothetical,” said one Administration lobbyist. "[Rep.] Lee Hamilton [D-Ind.] says Congress always asserts its prerogative to block American troops from being sent overseas--but it never actually does that.”

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Jeremy Rosner of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has written a book on Congress and foreign policy, says that only five times in the 20th Century has Congress succeeded in overriding a presidential veto of legislation concerning foreign policy and national security. The last time was in 1986, when a Democratic Congress overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan of sanctions against South Africa.

“Not one of these [votes] was about a deployment [of American] troops,” Rosner said.

Some scholars say that if Congress were to reject the peacekeeping mission, and if Clinton were to honor that congressional vote by keeping the troops home, it would mark a shift to isolationism comparable to the United States’ refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I.

On Friday, the House of Representatives voted 243 to 171 to bar Clinton from sending U.S. troops to Bosnia without congressional approval. That measure has not yet been submitted to the Senate--and the House vote itself was considerably short of the two-thirds margin necessary to override a presidential veto.

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Clinton, during a press conference Tuesday, promised to give Congress a chance to vote on the Bosnian mission. “We have assured Congress that there will be no complete deployment until they have a chance to be heard on this issue,” he said.

That statement suggests that the President has ruled out sending the main body of troops until after Congress has had a chance to approve the mission.

But the President’s carefully chosen words stopped short of acknowledging that Congress has the legal power to veto the dispatch of U.S. troops.

Like presidents before him, including George Bush on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Clinton seemed to be reserving the right, as commander in chief, to go ahead and send troops even if Congress rejects the mission.

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On some foreign policy matters, such as treaties and ambassadorial nominations, the President cannot act without congressional approval. But the Constitution does not specifically require congressional approval before a President sends troops overseas, and the law on this question has never been settled.


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