U.S. is in -- and deeper than ever

April 12, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Strip away the euphemisms and the multinational trappings, and the implication of two days of air strikes in the eastern Bosnia town of Gorazde is clear: U.S. forces are in combat in the Balkans.

Now, Americans will see whether the Bosnia "hawks" in the United States were right that air power would curb the Serbs' aggression and push them toward peace, or whether the "doves" were right in fearing that air attacks would suck U.S. forces into an open-ended quagmire.

Either way, President Clinton is committed more deeply than ever, and will have a hard time backing off if things turn bad for American forces. "We've committed the prestige of the United States," said a senior administration official.

Officially, the air strikes are termed "close air support" to protect U.N. peacekeepers under threat from shelling of the Muslim enclave. The strikes were undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after a request from the commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, under a U.N. resolution and a NATO decision in June.

This international cast prompted Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland to praise the action yesterday, saying: "I would support further air strikes, if they are consistent with U.N. resolutions and if they are part of a multinational effort."

But the peacekeepers in Gorazde number about a dozen, and U.N. forces previously have come under threat without a strong response. Their plight appeared to be a convenient pretext for the United States finally to use its muscle against Serbian heavy-weapon targets.

Making action legal

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher indicated last week that the presence of U.N. peacekeepers in Gorazde would provide a legal basis for military action because the Security Council and NATO are committed to the peacekeepers' protection.

Mr. Christopher acknowledged yesterday that there was little distinction between protecting the U.N. forces and protecting Gorazde itself, which has been termed a "safe area" by the U.N. Security Council. And Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a television interview that the Gorazde air strikes "should be seen as a signal for the other safe havens."

Why, two years after the start of a war that brought a level of atrocity unseen in Europe since World War II, has the United States weighed in with bombs?

Strategically,the bombing is a lesson to the Serbs that after seizing 70 percent of Bosnia they have gained all the territory they can hope for in their campaign of "ethnic cleansing" and a Greater Serbia, and that now is the time to settle. U.S. officials have feared that if serious negotiations didn't get under way now, the alternative would be a brutal escalation by both sides that could drag the war into a third year. Gorazde is one of several Muslim pockets in largely Serbian-controlled eastern Bosnia that interrupt plans for a Greater Serbia linking the region to Serbia and Montenegro.

'Hawks' on top

The bombing reflects a sea change in the Clinton administration's attitude about using force in Bosnia, with advocates of action, including Mr. Christopher, Mrs. Albright and Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, coming out on top against Pentagon "doves."

Only by combining diplomacy and the credible threat of force, these officials believe, can the United States pressure the Bosnian Serbs to negotiate seriously. They also have concluded that Bosnia is a key test of the NATO alliance's purpose.

Within the administration, the turning point occurred in February, when NATO issued an ultimatum that, together with Russian intervention, persuaded the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.

When Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,appeared last week to be backsliding on the threat of force, administration "hawks" coalesced around the idea of protecting U.N. troops in Gorazde, and top Clinton advisers presented a unified front.

Two other factors contributed to the bombing. One is erosion of European opposition to force in Bosnia after repeated failures of European peace efforts. The other is a growing U.S. willingness to defy Russia, even if it weakens Moscow's reformers in their battle against nationalist hard-liners.

No ground troops yet

Although his country is now involved in the conflict and will bomb in response to specific provocations and with the legal &r underpinning of U.N. resolutions, Mr. Clinton hasn't wavered in his refusal to insert American ground troops in advance of a solid peace agreement.

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