The Clinton administration began building the case yesterday for sending U.S. peacekeepers to the Balkans while laying the groundwork for possible air strikes to protect the latest Muslim town under assault from Bosnian Serbs.
In a speech at the Johns Hopkins University, Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, said that Mr. Clinton's promise to send peacekeepers to implement a negotiated end to the war had already spurred the parties toward peace and that "active American support is essential" if it is to last.
Now that Bosnia's two-year, three-sided war shows signs of petering out, the administration fears that unless it starts making the case for deployment to help enforce a peace arrangement, the public and Congress could be as ill-prepared for the mission as they were for last year's altered U.S. military role in Somalia that led to American casualties.
Mr. Lake pledged to "define our mission clearly, early and often" and acknowledged that the administration started to do this too late in Somalia. But his speech offered so few specifics about the United States' peacekeeping role as to underscore how tough a selling job lies ahead with Congress and the public.
While laying out the long-term reasons for U.S. involvement in Bosnia, Mr. Lake also used his speech to end the administration's mixed signals on whether it was prepared to use air power to protect Gorazde, the Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia under heavy attack by Serbs.
While top Pentagon officials have said that use of air power at this point would not be useful, Mr. Lake stressed: "Neither the president nor any of his senior advisers rules out the use of NATO power to help stop attacks such as those against Gorazde." He also pressed the United Nations to send peacekeepers there "as soon as possible" and pledged that NATO would provide any air support that they request.
Separately, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher suggested that the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to Gorazde could offer a rationale for the launching of air strikes.
In the longer run, Mr. Clinton has committed the United States to sending troops as part of a NATO force to implement a "viable" peace agreed to by Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
Bosnia, Mr. Lake said, engages U.S. interests because the war there could spread through the region, endangering the historic democratic reforms in Eastern Europe. The United States also needs to show that NATO remains a credible force for peace in Europe, he said. "And we have a humanitarian interest in helping stop the continuing slaughter of innocents."
Mr. Clinton has said that the United States would provide fewer than half the peacekeepers needed if a Bosnian settlement is reached.
While some administration officials have cited the figure of 25,000 troops, Mr. Lake did not mention any, explaining later that the shape of the peace settlement is not yet known.
But he said: "We must bring our forces to bear in sufficient mass to get the job done. If our forces are deployed to Bosnia, they will go in strong" and "establish a commanding presence with the numbers, equipment and robust rules of engagement they need to defend themselves and accomplish their mission."
His speech offered such a glowing account of administration actions to date in the crisis that it failed, in some respects, to match the historical record.
Tracing the administration's role in seeking an end to the Bosnian conflict, Mr. Lake omitted its failure last year to secure European backing for lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims and launching air strikes.
Mr. Lake also credited Mr. Clinton's leadership for NATO's toughened posture, when that posture stemmed in large part from a combination of pressure from France and the shock of the Sarajevo market massacre in February.