Clinton reconsiders use of force in Bosnia Sterner U.N. action could hurt Yeltsin

April 17, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, confronted with the latest and most ominous failure of diplomacy to halt Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, revived the possibility of direct military intervention yesterday and said he'd try to overcome allied opposition.

"I think the time has come for the United States and Europe to look honestly at where we are and what our options are and what the consequences of various courses of action will be," Mr. Clinton said at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

"And I think we have to consider things which at least previously have been unacceptable to some of the Security Council members and some of those in NATO and in other common security arrangements of which the United States is a part."

But as he had before, Mr. Clinton ruled out the introduction of U.S. ground combat forces in an offensive posture and said that the United States would not act alone. The latter condition appeared to diminish the likelihood of early military action to keep the Serbs from their goal -- such as air strikes or the arming of Bosnian Muslims.

The president assumed his tougher posture as Srebrenica, a Bosnian Muslim town that has become a symbol of resistance to Serbian "ethnic cleansing," was negotiating its own surrender yesterday to avoid what Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said would be a "massacre."

At the United Nations, the United States suddenly set aside its previous overriding concern for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's domestic political survival and pressed to have a series of toughened sanctions against the Serbs voted on and implemented immediately once Srebrenica fell.

Russia has resisted stronger sanctions against the Serbians, with whom it has historic ties.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, saying that "all bets are off," informed Russia's deputy foreign minister in a telephone call of the U.S. shift on the timing of sanctions.

But he got no immediate word that Russia, which wields a Security Council veto, would acquiesce.

The imminent fall of Srebrenica, a key advance in the formation of a "greater Serbia" connecting large, contiguous chunks of Bosnia to the rump Yugoslav state, marked the collapse of U.S. and allied efforts to get Serbia to sign a peace accord already endorsed by Muslims and Croats.

It presaged a further Serbian drive against the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Zepa and Gorazde.

Bosnian Serbs have been undeterred by the threat of tighter sanctions on Serbia proper and appear to have been emboldened by a previous U.S.-Russian agreement to postpone U.N. Security Council vote until the day after a referendum April 25 on Mr. Yeltsin's future.

Mr. Clinton, asked at a photo opportunity yesterday if he expected military action, said, "I wouldn't say that. We're looking at a number of options. I don't want to rule in or out any except that we've never considered the introduction of American ground forces, as you know.

"But I hope the gravity of the situation will develop a consensus among the United Nations partners. We'll see."

A Pentagon official said bombing of Serbian targets in Bosnia and Serbia itself was among the options. The United States has also threatened to seek a Security Council lifting of the arms embargo imposed on Bosnia's Muslims.

Both these moves are opposed by the United States' key allies on the Security Council, Britain and France, as well as Russia. Their stance caused the United States to shelve the proposal earlier.

European mediator Lord Owen has said that Russia, which has been promised $28 billion in Western aid, might arm the Serbs if the weapons embargo against Bosnia were lifted, although Serbs appear to have plenty of weapons already.

But the mediator himself has toughened his own stance, suggesting air strikes against Serbian positions to force a diplomatic settlement.

Top officials are also studying two options posed by a group of officials who recently returned from an examination of Bosnia's humanitarian plight: putting Serbian heavy weapons under control and creating havens for Muslims.

But both of these steps would appear to call for the kind of ground action Mr. Clinton again ruled out yesterday.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the latest review of options could turn out to be an exercise with the same result as before, but said the administration was morally required to conduct it.

Earlier, the United States said it was prepared to insert U.S. troops into Bosnia, but only to help enforce a peace agreement accepted by all parties.

At a news conference yesterday, the president was asked whether this was a time for U.S. leadership to stop the Balkan nightmare.

In the course of a lengthy reply, he said, "I think we have an ## interest in standing up against the principle of ethnic cleansing.

"If you look at the turmoil all through the Balkans, if you look at the other places where this could play itself out in other parts of the world, this is not just about Bosnia."

"On the other hand," the president went on, "there is reason to be humble when approaching anything dealing with the former Yugoslavia," citing Germany's prolonged debacle there in World War II.

"But I do think the United States at least has an obligation to force the consideration by all the parties of all responsible options and to try to come to the best possible result, which is what I intend to do."

To arrive at a new course, Mr. Clinton will have to overcome deep divisions within his own senior ranks. While Secretary of Defense Les Aspin is open to some form of military action, top military leaders have long been opposed.

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