West feels pressure on Bosnia Military action increasingly urged

April 24, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Far removed from the White House Situation Room and the Cabinet councils of London and Paris, cries of outrage and small but significant acts of rebellion and courage are propelling the West toward military action in the Balkans.

In the State Department, a dozen working-level desk officers who read the daily cables from Bosnia vented more than a year of frustration in a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. They described as a failure U.S. policy to end the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia and urged the use of force.

Flouting the usual chain of command, they asked for -- and got -- a meeting with Mr. Christopher this week.

In Bosnia, Gen. Phillippe Morillon of France, the United Nations Protection Force commander, went beyond his orders from New York and holed up in the Muslim town of Srebrenica last month to ensure the delivery of relief supplies.

Now, an outnumbered force of 145 lightly armed Canadians is all that stands between Srebrenica and "ethnic cleansing," and they know they can't defend the town. But since the U.N. Security Council has declared the town a "safe area," any Serbian onslaught would bring strong demands for reinforcements.

General Morillon, acting well outside the U.N. mandate, has suggested that this kind of haven be replicated throughout the ravaged country.

In a Muslim village near Vitez, where Croats and Muslims have fought each other furiously in the last week to claim remaining patches of Bosnian ground, a British commander raged at a Croatian soldier, according to British press reports: "I want to tell you this is an absolute disgrace. Whole families have been massacred here. Who is responsible for this?"

Such actions are part of a growing, bottom-up surge that is now compounding pressure on President Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major and French President Francois Mitterrand to launch coordinated military action.

Pressure mounted from other sources this week, including calls from columnists and editorialists and a growing number of members of Congress, both for air strikes and a lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims so they can fight back against the heavily armed Serbs.

Comparisons between "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans and the Nazi Holocaust intensified this week with the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Poland and elsewhere.

In an emotional speech at the dedication of the Holocaust museum, concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel pleaded with Mr. Clinton to "do something to stop the bloodshed."

This kind of clamor inevitably affects decision-making. Defending the length of the review, Mr. Christopher, a lawyer, said this week, "I come from a culture where working hard on problems, and digging in, and exchanging views is regarded as healthy, not a disadvantage."

"They're doing what they can to be rational and to look at precise planning. But there is no doubt they're doing it under pressure," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution, a foreign policy official in four administrations.

Signs of a shift in European policy were evident yesterday when British officials, speaking anonymously, accepted the inevitability of Allied air strikes against Serbian positions.

At a news conference yesterday, President Clinton indicated that a joint Allied decision on new and tougher action would be announced in a few days.

In the State Department, the frustration that led to the unusual letter to Mr. Christopher started to build more than a year ago, when reports of atrocities started to appear on mid-level desks.

The magnitude of the atrocities at first was slow to register in Washington. As evidence emerged last spring of "ethnic cleansing," officials wrestled internally even over how strongly to condemn them.

They settled on strong -- and repeated -- condemnations. But higher-level officials were paralyzed when mounting reports demanded active investigation and, beyond that, action.

"It caught all the instruments of the Cold War off guard," including the intelligence community, a U.S. official said at the time. A pared-down embassy staff in Belgrade filed regular reports with second-hand evidence, but wasn't sent into the combat zone to investigate thoroughly.

One mid-level State Department official, George Kenney, vented his frustration publicly and resigned. Other diplomats voiced private support for him at the time but continued to work through channels.

After Mr. Clinton won the presidential election in November, a number pinned their hopes on campaign promises of a tougher stance. But disillusion deepened on Feb. 10, when the administration, bowing to Europeans and Russia, opted for stepped-up diplomacy instead of military action.

Some officials at the time privately condemned Mr. Clinton's posture as worse than his predecessor's, since the Clinton administration had committed itself to doing more.

Now, with the current inexorable move toward the use of force, diplomats and analysts still point out the strong likelihood that any course will have serious negative consequences and may not improve the situation.

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