Bosnian conflict presents an early test for Clinton ON POLITICS

January 11, 1993|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON -- One of the Senate's most respected Republican statesmen, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, urged the incoming Clinton administration Thursday to send U.S. troops to quell the Serbian-sponsored civil war in Bosnia.

Perhaps "urge" is too weak a word. "Goaded" may be more like it. For as Mr. Lugar proposed this dramatic military intervention, he questioned whether the Clinton foreign policy team, lead by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, had the guts ever to use military force.

Mr. Christopher, he noted, was deputy to former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in the Carter administration. "That whole department did not think through how military force could be used around the world," Mr. Lugar said. "The Vance/Christopher team prided itself that every problem could be settled by negotiation."

In contrast to their alleged pacifism, Mr. Lugar said he wants to see tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of U.S. and other NATO troops dispatched to Bosnia to set up permanent military bases. The mere presence of Western troops would stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, he said.

"The troops would say, 'We're here. We don't want to fight. But we are not going to tolerate ethnic cleansing,' " Mr. Lugar told reporters at a morning meeting. U.S. forces would enter Bosnia under the umbrella of NATO, the 16-nation military alliance. U.S. warships and aircraft would back up the operation.

How long would it last? Maybe forever, Mr. Lugar said. If American troops are no longer needed to defend Germany, they could be stationed in Sarajevo.

A nutty idea? Apparently yes and no. At his Senate confirmation hearings Thursday, incoming Defense Secretary Les Aspin cited reasons why the Bosnian civil war affected U.S. vital interests -- one of the justifications for using military force.

"You might end up with a horrendous refugee flow . . . that would be destabilizing in the region," Mr. Aspin told Sen. Bill Cohen (R-Maine). "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 concern that Muslims are being harmed in this situation."

"Are those America's vital interests?" Mr. Cohen asked. "Those are," Mr. Aspin replied.

All this talk of U.S. troops in Yugoslavia alarmed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

"I have yet to meet a single military expert who tells me how we can get in, what we do when we get in, and how we can get out," Mr. McCain told Mr. Aspin. "I know you are keenly aware as I am that 30 German divisions during World War II were unable to pacify what was then Yugoslavia."

Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War pilot, was just as skeptical about Mr. Aspin's suggestion that precision air strikes might punish the Serbians.

"I heard about the great improvements in the use of air power in 1965, too, how a surgical strike into North Vietnam would somehow dissuade the North Vietnamese from continuing their support of South Vietnam," he said. "Bombing a communications site or a power grid somewhere in Serbia -- does that mean that somehow that would dissuade the Serbians from carrying out the incredibly fervent, atrocious acts that they're carrying out today?"

This back and forth continued for some time. The differing views between the Republican Mr. Lugar and the Republican Mr. McCain show that there is no Republican consensus on this issue. And the professorial Mr. Aspin may have just been talking off the top of his head.

But the real danger of Bosnia is this: President Bill Clinton may find that he cannot cut the budget deficit, that he cannot reform health care, that he cannot create good jobs at high wages, that he cannot bring law and order to our streets and wisdom and learning to our schools. And here will be all these smart, highly experienced geostrategists telling him he can be an instant world leader, popular commander in chief, world-class humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner just by sending a few American troops into a teeny-tiny civil war against a few ragtag guerrillas. That's the road to hell. We've been there.

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