Clinton hopes Bosnia won't upstage summit

January 08, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton leaves tonight on his first European trip, his top aides are struggling to keep the continent's most immediate security problem -- the war in Bosnia -- from upstaging more agreeable talks about the Western alliance's long-term future.

But events in the former Yugoslavia are undercutting their efforts.

A key reason for calling Monday's summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders was the alliance's inability to deal with ethnic conflicts that may pose the biggest threat to Europe's security.

But because Bosnia has become such a symbol of failure and bitter disagreement between the United States and Europe, U.S. and British officials are determined to keep it low on the summit's agenda.

No military intervention

Besides, neither the United States nor Europeans have any intention of intervening militarily.

"The subject of Bosnia will be under discussion, I'm sure, by the heads of government at the summit, and I would expect that we'll come forward with a coordinated position, as we have in the past, on that subject," Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher told reporters yesterday at the White House.

But when asked if President Clinton would assert any leadership on the subject, Mr. Christopher replied:

"I want to emphasize that the summit was called for by the president . . . to discuss the future of NATO, to discuss how NATO would reach out to the East, to the newly emerging democracies."

A British official said that Bosnia is "a continuing festering sore" and would no doubt be mentioned. But, he stressed, "This is not a summit about Yugoslavia."

The effort to sidestep the war might have been successful had it not been for France, which has a tradition of pressing issues at international gatherings that other countries, particularly the United States, want to avoid.

In statements this week, France said it wants the alliance to renew its commitment to United Nations resolutions, including ones calling for the protection of Sarajevo and other declared "havens" and to implement an eventual peace agreement.

It also wants support for opening an airport at Tuzla and protection of a road to Srebrenica, two besieged Muslim enclaves.

U.S. intervention sought

Defense Minister Francois Leotard was quoted as saying he wanted the United States to "intervene," although there appeared later to be division within the French government on how far to push President Clinton.

"It's time to wake up international opinion," said a French diplomat, describing the Bosnian war as getting "worse and worse." As of yesterday, there was no agreement on what a NATO statement on Bosnia would say.

Despite a NATO pledge to enforce a U.N.-declared no-fly zone over Bosnia, the alliance has allowed repeated violations to go unpunished.

NATO ministers have pledged to use air power to prevent the "strangulation" of Sarajevo, but neither they nor U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has responded to the heavy recent shelling of the Bosnian capital by Serbs.

The strain on peacekeepers has led to public friction between their commanders and U.N. headquarters in New York.

The secretary-general refused to give French Gen. Jean Cot, who commands the entire U.N. protection force in the Balkans, authority to summon air support on his own, but General Cot says he will keep pressing his demand.

Britain, Canada and Spain have warned they may soon withdraw their Balkan peacekeeping forces if no peace agreement is reached among warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

The Muslims, widely seen as the main victims of aggression, have been fighting fiercely recently, causing neighboring Croatia to threaten direct intervention.

In a breakfast with reporters yesterday, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin called the possibility of direct NATO military intervention in the conflict "very unlikely," though he said the alliance would honor its previous commitments.

Mr. Aspin said that unless direct U.S. interests are at stake, the United States could only get public support for using military force if there is no cost in casualties.

"If there's any cost, they'll bug out of those [conflicts]. They'll drop those like a hot potato," he said.

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