Christopher admits failures in Bosnia Refusal to send U.S. troops cited

September 21, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a blunt acknowledgment of a foreign policy failure, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said yesterday the United States had been unable to halt Bosnian genocide because it refused to send in the forces necessary to end the war.

"Coming down to the United States and why we have not been more effective, I would say that a fundamental decision was taken, and that was that we could not force a decision on the parties without imposing costs that we were not prepared to take," he said.

Mr. Christopher said that while the United States had done some "significant things" for the Bosnians, "I would be quick to say that they've not, by any means, been satisfactory."

His admission of failure came as the administration struggles with its commitment to dispatch ground troops to help implement an impending settlement of the conflict.

That commitment faces trouble in Congress and with the British and French, who want any peacekeeping operation placed under the United Nations, rather than NATO. Mr. Clinton has said NATO should command the troops.

In recent statements, Mr. Clinton has appeared to waver slightly on the commitment, saying he would seek congressional approval and telling an interviewer that any dispatch of U.S. troops to Bosnia would be unlikely until there was a "time certain" for withdrawing U.S. forces from Somalia.

After 1 1/2 years, the Bosnian conflict is approaching an end in a three-way ethnic partition that will -- its leaders' hopes of preserving a multiethnic state. Despite setbacks in negotiations, the onset of winter hardships appears to be propelling mediators and the parties themselves toward an agreement.

International mediators canceled a meeting planned for today in Sarajevo in which the warring parties were supposed to move ahead with an agreement to partition Bosnia into ethnic-based Serbian, Croatian and Muslim republics. A spokesman said that it was canceled because none of the parties had shown enough flexibility on the division of territory.

When the Clinton administration took office, Mr. Christopher said that there was little prospect of halting the ethnic war in the Balkans except with a large number of international troops and that the U.S. decision not to intervene meant the slaughter would continue.

His latest assessment came in response to a question at Columbia University, where he gave a speech that centered on a U.S.-led fund-raising effort to bolster last week's peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At one point he was asked: "Why hasn't the United States been more effective in stopping the genocide in Bosnia?"

In the past, administration officials, including Mr. Christopher, have blamed a combination of factors for allowing the Bosnian war to continue largely unchecked. These included early diplomatic recognition of breakaway Yugoslav states, inaction by George Bush's administration, an arms embargo that denied outgunned Bosnian Muslims the means to defend themselves and unwillingness by European allies to approve stronger measures.

Mr. Christopher cited some of these factors, but he went on to say that a key reason was the policy of his own administration.

"The imposition of a solution on the parties there would probably have required a massive use of large amounts of U.S. force, and President Clinton decided early on that United States' national interests would not warrant the use of large amounts of American ground troops, which would have been necessary to impose a decision."

"Now, in the context of that decision -- that is, our unwillingness to unilaterally take the steps necessary to impose a decision -- the United States has done, I think, a number of significant things," he said. He cited air drops of millions of meals, imposition of a no-fly zone and threats of NATO air strikes against Serbian forces besieging Sarajevo.

He did not mention the abandonment of President Clinton's earlier plan to lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims and launch compensatory air strikes against Serbian forces while the Muslims re-armed. But his other remarks suggested that at best, this would have been a half-way measure that would not have halted the genocide.

He said that "perhaps the most important thing for us to do is to try to learn the lessons from that experience," which "has not been a textbook experience for the West as a whole."

His comments shed light on serious rethinking within the administration about the extent to which the United States should rely on working with other countries to pursue foreign policy goals.

Speaking with some apparent disillusionment, Mr. Christopher said: "One of the lessons of the first eight months in office is that although there are many opportunities for multilateral responses, very frequently they require the leadership of the United States."

"Unless we show a determined leadership, in many instances others will not follow," Mr. Christopher said. He added that, frequently, other countries will agree to share a burden only if the United States is prepared to act alone.

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