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Clinton to give Bosnia plea tonight // CLINTON

President Clinton comes into the nation's living rooms by television tonight to tell mothers, fathers, wives and husbands why he believes 20,000 of their own should go to a distant place few Americans could find on a map.

His Oval Office address _ scheduled for 8 p.m. _ is aimed at turning public opinion and the GOP-led Congress in favor of his peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

"He's got the toughest speech of his entire public life this Monday night," said Virginia Sen. John Warner, a Republican.

The stakes are huge, both domestically and internationally. The success or failure could affect Clinton's re-election chances, the emerging role of the United States in post-Cold War Europe and the way Americans see their country's role around the world.

Clinton administration officials envision a one-year operation, meaning that U.S. troops would still be in Bosnia at the time of the 1996 presidential election. By then, some evidence on the Bosnia operation will be in _ and voters may factor it into their calculation for choosing a president.

So far, Clinton is getting credit for bringing the warring factions together for last week's initial peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio.

Now, the administration hopes it has crafted a mission that avoids the mistakes of the peacekeeping operation in Somalia, where vague goals led to an unceremonious departure, and of the long war in Vietnam, where politicians were too slow to pull out.

The Bosnia mission, the administration insists, will be clearly defined: Hold the peace for a year with well-trained and well-armed troops who will be given authority to defend themselves against hostile forces.

The administration says a one-year timetable gives all sides time to halt the centuries-old "cycle of violence" and lay the foundation for elections and the makings of a civil society. The U.S. cost of the operation is supposed to run between $1.5-billion and $2-billion.

Furthermore, the administration says that if the factions back out and restart their bloody war, U.S. troops will leave.

"I think Americans will be able to take pride in this operation. It will be done safely. This is not a war. This is not Vietnam. It's not Somalia," said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. "This is an operation to keep the peace, which all three parties have asked for."

Clinton administration officials argue that nothing less than the United States' role as the world's leader is at stake. Failing to step up now (by contributing one-third of the 60,000-person international force) could let the Balkan conflict spread to Greece and other nearby nations, they warn.

But as the president and his men began to make their case over the weekend, through Clinton's weekly radio address and Sunday morning talk show appearances, critics also began to frame their arguments against the endeavor.

To these critics, the question is this: What is the United States' vital national security interest in Bosnia to justify sending troops there?

Bosnia, the critics say, is no higher on the pecking order than Sri Lanka or Rwanda when it comes to what is at stake for the future of the United States. So why should troops be sent to Bosnia, when other countries' civil wars have gone largely ignored by U.S. foreign policymakers?

Even those Republicans who are keeping an open mind draw an analogy to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when President Bush rallied foreign allies and the American people by arguing that the aggression of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened U.S. oil interests and peace in the Middle East.

Republicans grumble that no top Democratic congressional leader stepped forward to support Bush.

After a solemn debate, the resolution authorizing use of force was approved by a vote of 250-183 in the House and 52-47 in the Senate. Most Democrats opposed the measure.

Bush said at the time that he didn't need Congress' approval, and Clinton is making the same argument. But it helps politically to have Congress aboard, especially if things go bad. In a practical sense, lawmakers could also end up cutting off funds.

So far, the two GOP congressional leaders _ Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich _ say they are uncommitted and await the president's speech and the salesmanship that follows.

Dole and Gingrich are hardly isolationists, having backed the Persian Gulf war as well as recent trade agreements. But both have to deal with an element within the Republican Party that would limit U.S. involvement overseas.

Two of Dole's rivals for theGOP presidential nomination, Sen. Phil Gramm and commentator Pat Buchanan, oppose the Bosnia operation.

"Foreign policy is not social work," Gramm, of Texas, said on ABC's This Week with David Brinkley. "You don't look around the world for things you could do to make things better."

In the end, the Republicans may well give Clinton the resolution of approval he seeks _ but still leave themselves a chance to escape and blame him in the event of a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, some of the Democrats who opposed Bush's request are out front arguing for intervention in Bosnia.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., one such opponent, calls the Bosnian bloodbath "genocide" and says the U.S. must make peace or be judged harshly by history.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who lost part of a leg to a grenade in the Vietnam War, warns that Washington's politicians are too worried about setting up a political escape route when they should be pledging full support for U.S. troops in what could be a longer-than-expected operation.

"I'm deeply skeptical that we can finish this in a year, and it seems to me that it (the timetable) may be driven by presidential politics," Kerrey said on ABC's This Week program.

"We are called upon to lead, but we cannot ask our soldiers to be courageous if our politicians are not," Kerrey said.

Speech reaction

Phone lines at the local offices of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, will be open for your comments on President Clinton's speech tonight. Young's district includes mid- and southern Pinellas County. The numbers are: 893-3191 (St. Petersburg) and 581-0980 (Largo).

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