Clinton's view of Balkan issue: once imperative, now hopeless

April 08, 1993|By Thomas L. Friedman | Thomas L. Friedman,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- After coming into office proclaiming the need to take action against moral outrages in Bosnia, the Clinton administration has shifted gears, and is now telling the American people that Bosnia is a quagmire about which very little can be done.

In effect, the administration has gone from shaking its fist at the Serbs to throwing up its hands. And it has gone from describing Bosnia as a test case of the United States' ability to nurture democracy in the post-Cold War world to calling it the intractable "problem from hell" that no one can be expected to solve.

Administration policy-makers vigorously deny that they have given up trying to press the Serbs into making concessions to the Bosnian Muslims, and insist that they are now working on lifting the arms embargo to give the Muslims more of a fighting chance.

But they also concede that they have begun to talk about Bosnia differently, to cast the problem there less as a moral tragedy -- which would make U.S. inaction immoral -- and more as a tribal feud that no outsider could hope to settle.

The reason for this political redefinition goes back to the presidential campaign, when Mr. Clinton used the Bosnia issue to differentiate himself from President George Bush in foreign policy, and to put Mr. Bush on the defensive. Mr. Clinton lambasted Mr. Bush for passivity toward Bosnia's fate and for dumping the problem in the lap of the Europeans.

But since coming into office, Clinton officials have learned just how complex the issue really is: The Europeans and Russians are woefully divided on what to do,all polls show that the American public has no desire to send its sons and daughters to fight there and the Pentagon resists getting involved in military action on the ground there.

At a time when the president's support for homosexuals in the armed services and his own lack of military experience have injured his credibility with some at the Pentagon, he clearly does not want to challenge the generals on Bosnia.

And at a time when he is absorbed at home in the difficult effort to build support for his economic and health care programs, he cannot afford to have the nation's attention diverted and divided debate over intervention in the Balkans.

But Mr. Clinton also does not want to look as though he is going back on another campaign pledge. Hence, the administration is setting out to redefine the nature of the Bosnian problem in a way that makes its limited involvement there look like understandable prudence rather than moral indifference.

When the president's aides are asked what Mr. Clinton really thinks about the Bosnian situation, they say that no foreign issue troubles and frustrates him more, but he is adamant about not letting his emotions dictate policy.

The first sign of the administration's new tone on Bosnia came March 28, when Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was asked on the CBS program "Face the Nation" what Washington would do if the Serbs did not sign the peace agreement.

In a remark that aides said Mr. Christopher rehearsed in advance, he depicted the conflict as the re-emergence of ancient European tribal feuds.

"Let me put that situation in Bosnia in just a little broader framework," he said. "It's really a tragic problem. The hatred between all three groups -- the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians -- is almost unbelievable. It's almost terrifying, and it's centuries old. That really is a problem from hell. And I think that the United States is doing all we can to try to deal with that problem."

But he added: "The United States simply doesn't have the means to make people in that region of the world like each other."

Contrast that with Mr. Christopher's statement Feb. 10, when he first unveiled the administration's Bosnia policy by describing the conflict as the destruction of one people by another.

By altering the definition of what was happening in Bosnia, Mr. Christopher was trying to change the stakes. What had been an outrage that was immoral to stand by and watch became a Balkan feud that was simply "terrifying" to watch.

President Clinton reinforced this view Tuesday when he declared, in effect, that the United States was not ready to act with force on its own in Bosnia, that the Europeans were ready to do even less and that therefore it was quite possible that the Serbs would get away with their aggression.

Asked what more could be done by the United States and Europeans on Bosnia, Mr. Clinton said: "It is the most difficult and most frustrating problem in the world today. The only point I was trying to make is I have proceeded all along on the assumption that whatever we did and whatever we could do, we would and should act through the United Nations in a multilateral way."

The president insisted that he had done his "best to continue to stiffen the sanctions, to continue to push for more action, to push for enforcement of the no-fly zone, to push all the countries involved to do what we could to try to bring this to a successful conclusion, so that the principle of 'ethnic cleansing' is not rewarded in Bosnia and therefore encouraged in other countries."

But he added: "The United States is not capable of solving the problem alone. I don't think anyone expects us to do that. We have been in many cases more aggressive in what we were willing to do than the European neighbors of the former Yugoslavia."

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