Clinton's call for 'real leadership' in Balkans has been muted

February 05, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS -- Tapping a nation's horror over detention camps, mass rape and "ethnic cleansing," Presidential candidate Bill Clinton raised expectations of a clear and forceful policy to combat Serbian aggression in the Balkans.

"It is time for real leadership to stop the continuing tragedy in the former Yugoslav republics," Mr. Clinton said July 26, calling for air strikes if needed to ensure delivery of humanitarian relief.

Now that he is president, though, Mr. Clinton is grappling with what Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher calls "one of the most difficult foreign policy problems that can be imagined" and confronts only bad choices:

* He can embrace a peace plan advanced by international mediators here that some in his government believe is unjust and unfeasible and could potentially force him to commit U.S. ground forces to the former Yugoslavia.

* Or he can launch a U.S. alternative. But that could require a Herculean diplomatic effort rivaling what it took to assemble the Persian Gulf war coalition and could still require U.S. ground troops.

"They're struggling mightily to develop an alternative that will work and are finding it a difficult exercise," says a U.S. official.

The result, for the moment, is a passivity on the Balkans issue that matches the Bush administration's.

A White House spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers, said yesterday that President Clinton would support the peace plan developed by two mediators, Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen, if the parties agreed to it.

"If the parties agree to it, he [President Clinton] would support it," she said, but added that "so far, all the parties [to the Bosnian conflict] have not agreed to it."

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Clinton administration has set aside for now the use of military force to resolve the crisis and is preparing instead a diplomatic effort to modify the peace plan to make it acceptable to the Muslims.

Administration officials declined to specify what changes they would seek in the partition of Bosnia. They said that the administration did not have a map of its own, but would support any outcome that all the parties can live with.

This, however, effectively dictates a U.S. diplomatic initiative that pressures the Serbs to give some more territory to the Muslims, the officials indicated.

This diplomatic initiative will like ly be combined with a stepped-up humanitarian relief program for Bosnia, they said.

As with his campaign statements on Haiti, Mr. Clinton finds himself pressured by the very expectations he helped create.

His eloquent demands for U.S. leadership and willingness to consider aggressive air and naval power encouraged besieged Bosnian Muslims to reject the peace plan in hopes of greater American pressure on the Serbs, U.N. officials say.

Mr. Clinton's rhetoric also encouraged factions inside government and on Capitol Hill who long chafed over the Bush administration's inaction to push aggressively for a more forceful policy.

Here Mr. Clinton's hand is being forced by negotiations due to begin at the U.N. this week on the Vance-Owen peace plan.

The talks were shifted to the United Nations after five months of negotiations based in Geneva fell short of agreement.

Lord Owen, representing the European Community, and Mr. Vance, representing the United Nations, hope to use their new forum here to generate international pressure on Muslims and Serbs to accept the plan, which calls for 10 semi-autonomous provinces in Bosnia and an interim government made up of Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

While Mr. Clinton's Cabinet reviews its policy behind closed doors, Mr. Vance and Lord Owen have been filling the airwaves and print media with persuasive arguments that their peace plan is, in Lord Owen's words, "the only act in town."

Quite apart from the encouragement the besieged Bosnian Muslims may have drawn from Mr. Clinton's promises as a candidate, they now are resisting the Vance-Owen plan partially because of the expectation that the U.S. president may order military help.

The architects of the Vance-Owen plan regard that expectation as a major stumbling block to its acceptance. And while Washington considers its options, Mr. Vance and Lord Owen have been busy lining up support from U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and all five permanent members of the Security Council except for the United States.

They contend that, Bosnian Muslim arguments notwithstanding, the map of 10 provinces they have drawn up to settle the conflict actually penalizes Bosnian Serbs for their aggression and campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The map grants Serbs less territory than they possessed before the war began, the envoys argue, and blocks the kind of adjoining territories and corridors that would advance a greater Serbia.

Refugees would be allowed to return to their homes under protection of U.N. forces and power in the overall state would be shared among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

If the plan is accepted only grudgingly by the parties, they add, the chance of renewed fighting would increase.

But within the Clinton administration, the plan draws reactions ranging from ambivalence to disgust, said one U.S. official.

Critics say it fails sufficiently to punish Serbian aggression and // would dismantle a sovereign state recognized by the Security Council.

But Americans stand to take a large share of the blame if the peace effort collapses. The united European, Russian and Chinese support for the plan has drastically reduced American leverage.

It would require strenuous diplomatic efforts to win support for the sort of bold new U.S. action that Mr. Clinton suggested was necessary back when he was a candidate. He also faces the likelihood that if the United States were to act militarily, it might have to do so alone.

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