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Bosnian Peace Pact Is a Dilemma for Dole : Politics: The Senate leader might follow his earlier stands and back use of U.S. troops. But other GOP presidential hopefuls will oppose Clinton’s plan.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the looming legislative battle over the U.S. role in Bosnia, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is once again the man in the middle.

For the past three years, Dole (R-Kan.) has been among the most prominent and persistent voices urging first George Bush and then Bill Clinton to intervene more aggressively on behalf of the besieged Bosnian government in the war that has ravaged its country. Now, Dole must decide whether to support President Clinton’s pledge to send some 20,000 American troops to police the peace agreement initialed in Dayton, Ohio, last week.

Dole faces this decision at a time when most of his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination are already opposing the deployment. The choice he makes could cast a long shadow over the GOP presidential race--and determine whether the Republican Congress launches a serious effort to prevent Clinton from sending troops to Bosnia, possibly as soon as mid-December.

“Dole certainly is a pivot in this,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who co-sponsored with Dole several bills to ship arms to the Bosnians.

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In his initial remarks last week about Clinton’s plan, Dole was conciliatory but noncommittal: He praised the President for securing the peace agreement but said Clinton had not proved the case for committing Americans as part of the 60,000 troops NATO is planning to deploy in Bosnia. “I want to support my President . . . but he has to make a case, and he hasn’t done that,” Dole said.

Most Washington observers expect that Dole in the end will support the deployment--if only after demanding some changes in the plan. But Dole’s aides insist that it is premature to predict how he will come down on the issue, which is likely to come to a congressional vote before Dec. 15. “He needs to be convinced,” said one Dole adviser.

As during last year’s debates over the North American Free Trade Agreement and the world treaty produced through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the dispute over Bosnia is forcing Dole to balance his own internationalist instincts against a rising isolationist current in his party.

“It is a tremendous risk [Dole] is taking by doing this if he supports it,” said GOP presidential contender Patrick J. Buchanan, who has emerged as the leading voice of a new conservative nationalism hostile to both free trade and military engagement abroad.

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Though most opinion analysts say Americans are skeptical of committing troops to Bosnia, polls do not show overwhelming opposition. A recent Gallup survey, for instance, found Americans divided evenly when asked if they would support “contributing U.S. troops to an international peacekeeping force” in Bosnia.

But hostility appears to be much more intense among audiences of Republican partisans, such as the 3,500 activists who loudly applauded denunciations of Clinton’s plan during a recent straw poll and debate at a Republican Party convention in Florida. “With the folks that I speak to, at the grass roots, there is recoil to the idea of introduction of American forces into Bosnia,” Buchanan sad.

Most of Dole’s leading rivals have already anchored themselves in opposition to the deployment. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) belittled Clinton’s plan almost as soon as the presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia initialed the deal last Tuesday. “Adding American names to the casualty lists cannot save Bosnia,” Gramm said. Likewise, publishing magnate Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr. issued a statement praising the settlement but insisting it “would still be a murderous mistake to send American ground forces as peacekeepers.”

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Buchanan have taken similar stands. In an interview last week, Buchanan argued that the troops will have to stay longer than the roughly 12 months indicated by Administration officials. “It’s a truce, not a peace agreement,” Buchanan said. “It is going to break down sooner or later. And the United States will have acquired a new dependency: the Republic of Bosnia.”

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In a race that has produced few sharp issue distinctions among the candidates, a Dole decision to support deployment would create a clear cleavage with most of his leading rivals. That prospect would add an element of volatility to a contest that, so far, has proceeded relatively smoothly for the front-runner. “In terms of political advice, especially in New Hampshire, I think things would be a lot more predictable for Dole if he were working against sending troops,” said one GOP political professional closely watching the race.

But other factors argue for Dole to ultimately support the deployment, close observers say. At the top of the list is Dole’s longstanding and passionate insistence that the United States increase its efforts to end the bloodshed in Bosnia. “No one wants to be in a position to say we killed this peace,” acknowledged one Dole adviser.

Dole has always expressed skepticism about Clinton’s promise to contribute U.S. troops to a NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia. But he has been careful not to rule out the option.

And earlier this year, he expressed “grudging” willingness to insert American troops into Bosnia under a different circumstance: to facilitate the withdrawal of NATO peacekeepers who threatened to leave Bosnia if America unilaterally lifted the arms embargo, as Dole had urged.

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Second, several observers said, Dole, with his own eyes on the Oval Office, may be unwilling to undercut a President’s ability to commit troops abroad.

“It is my impression from Sen. Dole that he will be reluctant to oppose a President and commander in chief who is taking a strong position,” said Lieberman, who co-sponsored with Dole the legislation to break the arms embargo against the Bosnian government.

Indeed, some critics of the plan believe that it is unlikely Congress will vote to block Clinton from deploying the troops. “From a pure legislative standpoint, it is almost impossible to prevent the President from doing it,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an opponent of the plan. “So what we are really talking about is [influencing] the court of public opinion.”

Even the political risks of supporting the deployment may not be as great as they now appear, some Republicans say. Several observers agreed that if, in fact, Clinton wins congressional approval for the deployment, the troops’ very presence in harm’s way is likely to mute criticism of his decision, at least at the outset.

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One model for Dole’s actions in the next few weeks could be his maneuvers last fall on the GATT trade accord. After holding out his support for weeks, Dole finally endorsed the global pact, which was bitterly opposed by conservative protectionist elements led by Buchanan. But Dole gave his backing only after securing relatively modest concessions from Clinton that allowed the senator to say he had addressed conservative fears that the agreement would impinge on American sovereignty.

Similar negotiations between Dole and the Administration could be forthcoming on Bosnia. “I think Dole will look for . . . [agreements] that will give the President the flexibility to do what he has to do, but he [Dole] can say the mission was limited, there was an exit strategy, the tough questions got answered,” said one senior State Department official. Such an approach would allow Dole to support the deployment now while laying a foundation for criticizing Clinton later if the mission runs into difficulty, observers noted.

One Dole target might involve obtaining a more explicit U.S. commitment to arm and train the Bosnian government forces. With the signing of the peace accord, the United Nations has lifted the arms embargo against the combatants, thus fulfilling one of Dole’s goals in the region. But one aide said Dole remains concerned that the United States has not committed in writing to providing arms and training to the Bosnian government so that its troops can better defend themselves when peacekeepers leave.

The senior State Department official noted that the treaty calls for negotiations to reduce the level of weaponry in the region but establishes a fall-back mechanism that will allow the new Bosnian-Croat federation to acquire arms if no agreement can be reached. Though the treaty does not specify how those arms will be provided, Clinton wrote in a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) earlier this month that the United States is “prepared to play a role in an international effort . . . to help equip and train the armed forces of the Bosnian federation.”

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