Clinton plans tougher policy toward Bosnia

April 27, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, drawing on the new international clout he derived from aiding Boris N. Yeltsin's victory, said yesterday he was ready to mobilize Europe and Congress in a tougher Balkans policy.

Officials said he was considering dispatching Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to meet with European and perhaps Russian leaders as soon as his new policy is announced.

But as aides acknowledged that only Mr. Clinton could force a change in Western policy toward Bosnia, the president continued to be hemmed in both by continued European misgivings about the use of force and the restrictions he has placed on the mission and extent of U.S. military involvement.

"It is now, I think, clear that the United States and its allies need to move forward with a stronger policy in Bosnia," Mr. Clinton said at the White House yesterday, adding: "I think the time has come to focus on that problem and what it means for the United States and the rest of the world as well as for the people that are suffering there."

At a ceremony to honor the University of Arkansas track team, Mr. Clinton said, "I will be announcing the course that I hope we can take in the next several days." Earlier he said, "I want to do serious consultations with the Congress and others."

The Russian referendum results strengthened Mr. Clinton's hand in the Balkans in two ways: It validated a risky and expensive gambit of interfering in Russia's domestic affairs. And it weakened the domestic political standing of Russian nationalist forces aligned with Serbia who are competing with Mr. Yeltsin for support from Russia's military.

To the detriment of his domestic economic program, Mr. Clinton made the goal of shoring up Mr. Yeltsin a top priority, developing a two-installment, $3.4 billion U.S. aid package and marshaling billions more from world financial institutions and industrialized democracies.

His desire to avoid anything that would undercut Mr. Yeltsin's political standing led in part to avoiding military action in his first Bosnian initiative, which has proved a failure.

"Clinton put a great stake in U.S. relations with Russia," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a prominent Capitol Hill voice on foreign policy, noting that Mr. Clinton had invested political capital both in the Vancouver summit and the subsequent meeting of Group of Seven foreign and finance ministers in Tokyo. This investment "has been vindicated by the results" in Russia's referendum, Mr. Lugar said.

Mr. Clinton, who called to congratulate Mr. Yeltsin yesterday, said the Russian's victory at the polls "will validate the policy of the United States, which I might say has been by and large a completely bipartisan one." He expressed hope that it would strengthen support for the $1.8 billion part of his aid package that is in trouble on Capitol Hill.

Following up on the referendum, the administration is preparing a series of measures to increase security cooperation with Russia.

Mr. Yeltsin's victory also marks a boost for his and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev's policy of cooperation with the West, in the Balkans and elsewhere. That cooperation was severely strained in the days leading up to the referendum, when the Russians threatened to veto and then abstained from voting on a package of tighter sanctions that went into effect yesterday against Serbia.

The Russian military, which has been neutral in the country's constitutional struggle, "has got to see this as a 'yes' for him [Mr. Yeltsin]," said a U.S. official who has closely followed developments in Russia for months. As a result, "Yeltsin and Kozyrev are in a better position to withstand those blows" from Russian hard-liners.

But a senior U.S. official warned yesterday not to overestimate the impact of the referendum results on Russian policy in the Balkans.

"This does not automatically translate into Russian support for much stronger action" against Serbia. "They still have an interest in seeing that everything is done diplomatically before anything stronger happens."

Europe's foreign ministers ended a meeting Sunday still reluctant to give anything more than passive acquiescence to U.S.-led military action. Diplomats say they continue to have reservations about air strikes but consider dropping the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims the "least attractive" option.

This restricts Mr. Clinton's freedom of action, particularly since he has continuously ruled out introduction of U.S. ground troops while hostilities continue.

Other constraints plague Mr. Clinton, as evidenced in an interview he gave to the Boston Globe on Sunday in which he seemed to resist the idea of employing air strikes for the sole purpose of punishing Serbia.

"I'm convinced that the United States cannot just simply decide to bomb a few targets in Bosnia and reverse the situation on the ground politically," Mr. Clinton said. He has also insisted that the United States cannot become a partisan in the conflict.

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