Zigzagging Balkans policy blurs U.S. intentions, casts doubt on credibility

May 13, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the end of his latest attempt to do something about the Balkans, Bill Clinton was left alone with the way he wanted to arm the underdogs and bomb the aggressors.

There lay the road to greater catastrophe, said those the president wanted to follow him.

European leaders, despite a week of stroking by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, had actually hardened against the president's plan to arm Bosnian Muslims and launch air strikes against Serbian aggressors. Instead, they were starting to coalesce around a strategy of expanding Bosnian "safe areas" and demanding that the United States and Russia help protect the zones with troops on the ground.

From Moscow came a warning from special envoy Strobe Talbott: The Russians "would have a hard time approving" the president's plan, a senior administration official says.

"The V-word [a United Nations Security Council veto] wasn't used, but it was implied," the official said.

Reporting on the latest diplomatic soundings at the White House Saturday, Mr. Christopher told the president that if he wanted to move forward, "he would have to just use raw power and essentially just go it alone," said one of those present at the meeting.

"No one recommended that," the official said.

So Mr. Clinton, who the day before had said, "I think we've got to keep the heat on," abruptly backed away from persuading the United Nations, Congress and the American people that allied force was necessary.

It was the latest in a series of reversals and mixed signals on Balkans policy that have sown confusion at home and abroad about U.S. intentions and raised serious doubts about U.S. credibility.

"One of the issues at the moment is the credibility of the United States," said Marten Van Heuven, a senior consultant to the Rand Corp. "We said we would take more forceful action. We haven't done it."

The shifts all point to what even administration officials acknowledge is an absence of clear direction from the commander in chief. "He's gone back and forth on all this stuff," one official said. "My interpretation is that he doesn't know in his heart what he wants to do."

Entwined in Mr. Clinton's dilemma are questions about the role the president envisions for the United States as the sole superpower, its continued leadership of the Atlantic alliance and its diplomatic partnership with Russia.

Inescapably, comparisons have been drawn with the way President George Bush assembled the Persian Gulf war coalition: getting the Saudis to accept U.S. troops, lining up Arab and European support, winning endorsement from the United Nations and Congress, and keeping Israel out of the war.

But an equally valid comparison is the way Mr. Clinton himself handled another foreign policy problem: the survival of political reform in Russia. There, he pointed his entire administration in a clear direction of assembling an aid package to help President Boris N. Yeltsin, got U.S. allies and even a resistant Japan to kick in, marshaled congressional support and made a convincing and even stirring case to the American public.

The difficulties Mr. Clinton confronted in trying to deal with an ugly Balkan problem he inherited from Mr. Bush are well known: centuries-old ethnic hatreds in the area; reluctant allies who view the problem less as genocidal aggression than as a civil war; a military fearful of getting drawn into another Vietnam; a divided Congress; and, most of all, an American public strongly resistant to the use of U.S. force in the former Yugoslavia.

Those problems, along with a conviction that the Balkans were a European responsibility, persuaded Mr. Bush to stay out.

Mr. Clinton, having used Bosnia against Mr. Bush in his campaign, came into office with a commitment to halt the kind of post-Cold War aggression exemplified by "ethnic cleansing."

Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton has ruled out sending ground troops into the hostilities. And the president, who said as a candidate that the United States would defend its interests "together when we can, alone when we must," has refused to act unilaterally.

The military strategy abandoned Saturday originally was reviewed and rejected in late January and early February. At the time, top officials cited European opposition to it and the domestic political problems it could cause for Mr. Yeltsin, then embroiled with his parliament in a fight for political survival.

That shattered expectations raised during the campaign, though never explicitly proposed by Mr. Clinton, that air strikes might be used against Serbian positions.

In February, the administration basically agreed to a complicated peace plan mediated by Cyrus R. Vance of the United Nations and Lord Owen of the European Community. But when Europeans later wanted to build political pressure on the Serbs by having the Security Council explicitly endorse the plan, the United States refused to go along.

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