Balkan strife could threaten vital U.S. interests, Aspin says

January 08, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Les Aspin, President-elect Bill Clinton's designated defense secretary, said yesterday that the Balkans conflict poses a potential threat to vital American interests and .. he suggested that the United States might be wise to become militarily involved even without the prospect of sure success.

"If the world does nothing about what's going on in Bosnia, what kind of a signal does that send to other places in the former Soviet Union and other places, where similar things might erupt?" Mr. Aspin demanded at his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Ethnic and religious violence in the former Yugoslavia threatens the peace of the region and provokes calls for action based upon conscience," he said.

In a sharp departure from Bush administration thinking, the Wisconsin congressman also indicated the United States should consider using force in a limited way without assurance of success.

With the Cold War over, he said, the United States need not be as concerned as it was about showing a lack of resolve by pulling out of anunwinnable situation.

"Maybe you can use force, and if it doesn't work, the backing off of it hasn't got the same kind of international concerns the way it did. Maybe you can use force not to achieve something but to punish people for doing certain things," he said.

Mr. Aspin testified as Mr. Clinton's advisers wrestle with what to do about the Balkans crisis, the toughest foreign policy question confronting the president-elect in his first days in office.

They are weighing possible air strikes against Serbian targets, an end to the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims and pursuit of war-crimes charges against Bosnian Serbs.

The review comes amid little, if any, progress in a peace process led by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, representing the United Nations, and the European Community's Lord Owen. Talks resume Sunday in Geneva, but both Serbians and Bosnian Muslims have voiced dissatisfaction with a plan by the two envoys for a system of 10 autonomous regions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now 70 percent controlled by Serbs.

Bush administration officials, who are trying to get U.N. Security Council backing to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia, also voice seriousmisgivings with the plan. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who was at the United Nations yesterday, is to meet with Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger today and with Clinton foreign policy advisers Leon Fuerth and Jenonne Walker.

Mr. Clinton has instructed aides to prepare a final set of options for key foreign policy decisions by the time he takes office.

A major question as Mr. Clinton considers the choices is the influence that Mr. Vance, former superior of three key Clinton advisers, including Secretary of State-designate Warren M. Christopher, will bring to bear on the new administration.

Mr. Vance has urged delay in any military action to give the peace process a chance. But some Clinton advisers believe the negotiations would stand a better chance if accompanied by a clear Western military threat.

As Mr. Clinton's inauguration approaches, Muslim countries are showing increasing signs of moving to assist the Bosnians, probably by funneling cash to Bosnian Muslims to enable them to acquire weapons.

Testifying yesterday, Mr. Aspin stressed that various options had not been fully reviewed by the incoming Clinton administration and that he could not give definitive answers.

But under repeated questioning by the committee, he illuminated his own thinking and the issues confronting the president-elect.

"I think there's more of a national interest at stake in Bosnia than there is in Somalia," he said. "They are, first of all, that you might end up with a horrendous refugee flow coming out of that region that would be destabilizing in the region. Secondly, the fighting in this area might spill out and involve other countries in the region . . . in fighting each other, particularly if this thing spreads to Kosovo and Macedonia. Thirdly there is the concern that the Muslim world will be energized by what is a concern that Muslims are being harmed in this situation."

During the hearing, Mr. Aspin stressed: "I have never advocated the use of U.S. ground troops in Bosnia. The issues always were discussed in terms of enforcing the no-fly zone, maybe the issue of arming the Muslims by changing the embargo and possibly the use of American air strikes against Serbs.

"I think that in this case the Europeans have clearly a bigger stake in this thing than we do," particularly "the concern over a massive refugee flow," he said. If ground troops are needed, Mr. Aspin said, it would be his preference for the Europeans to move first.

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