Tests for use of force in Bosnia spelled out Debate continues in White House

April 28, 1993|By Mark Matthews and Charles W. Corddry | Mark Matthews and Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- High-level Clinton administration debate over what to do in the Balkans burst further into the open yesterday with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher posing "very severe" tests for American use of force and a top military officer highlighting the difficulties and uncertain consequences of using air power in Bosnia.

Their comments underscored the conflicting pressures on President Clinton as he prepares to announce a stronger policy, and pointed up the arguments he may use if he pulls back again from military action.

Mr. Clinton summoned key congressional leaders to sound out their views late yesterday. He met for more than 2 1/2 hours with 35 members, but they came away with little sense of the direction in which the president was headed. Judging from wide-ranging congressional comments over the past week, he stood to hear almost as many prescriptions as there were members present.

The proposals include calls for avoidance of military involvement, advocacy of air strikes and of arming the Bosnian Muslims, and calls from at least two senators, Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., and Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., for the use of ground forces, an option Mr. Clinton has ruled out.

In a further sign of the stiff challenge Mr. Clinton faces in getting political support, a CNN-USA Today poll, conducted last weekend, found 62 percent of Americans opposed to U.S. air strikes against the Serbs, who are considered the main aggressors in the continuing civil war; 30 percent were in favor.

Some form of air strikes against Serbian supply lines and artillery sites in Bosnia, or perhaps against targets inside Serbia-Montenegro, has emerged as the least disagreeable option for the European allies whom Mr. Clinton insists must concur in any new policy.

Mr. Christopher told a Senate appropriations panel: "I am personally quite prepared to see the United States use force not only there [Bosnia] but anyplace around the world, but it has to meet some very severe tests:

"First, are we able to state the goal for which force is going to be used in a clear and understandable way to the American people?

"Second, is there a strong likelihood that we can be successful in the use of force?

"And third, is there an exit strategy? Do we know how we're going to get out of the situation?

"And fourth, and finally, is it a program that will sustain the support of the American people?"

Mr. Christopher would not disclose what advice he has given the president privately.

Aides noted he had posed similar tests on the use of force during his confirmation hearings. He firmly believes, a senior aide said, that the use of U.S. force is at times necessary in support of diplomatic objectives and security interests.

But the timing of his comment yesterday was significant. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., an opponent of the use of U.S. force in the Balkans who chaired yesterday's hearing, said the answer to each of Mr. Christopher's four queries, if applied to Bosnia, would have to be "no."

Mr. Christopher's tests carried echoes of the criteria on the use of force cited in January by outgoing President George Bush, who had himself rejected military involvement in the Balkans, and in 1984 by then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin took issue with these rules during his confirmation hearings, arguing that with the Cold War over, "maybe you can use force not to achieve something, but to punish people for doing certain things."

In a September speech, he outlined a strategy of using military force against an adversary to influence his behavior elsewhere. But Mr. Aspin was described by associates yesterday as in agreement with his military chiefs on the use of force in Bosnia.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, Adm. David E. Jeremiah, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated military warnings about the difficulties and uncertain consequences of using air power in Bosnia. He said the military ** situation there was starkly different from that in the Persian Gulf war and it was "not simple or easy" to strike at Bosnian Serb guerrilla forces with aircraft.

Civilian areas would surely be bombed as hard-to-find military targets are sought out, he said. And some U.S. and allied aircraft would be shot down as they scoot under bad weather and are exposed to anti-aircraft gunfire.

In the Bosnian case, he said, "We can't allow somebody to assume that you are going to get in and out with a quickie."

As Admiral Jeremiah outlined basically negative positions on military intervention, he said that Mr. Clinton had been "meticulous in thoroughly examining the options."

Describing the conflict in Bosnia as "fundamentally a civil war," Admiral Jeremiah sharply contrasted the military situation there with the one the allies faced in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces were spread over the desert, clearly visible and vulnerable to U.S. and allied forces. Commanders had a clear objective and an "end point."

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