'Mission Creep' in Bosnia

April 12, 1994

The United States crossed a divide when it sent two of its military aircraft, on two successive days, to bomb Bosnian Serbs attacking the Muslim city of Gorazde. The raid pierced the pretense of U.S. neutrality in the civil war, buttressed suspicions that NATO and the United Nations are a cover for U.S. action and hugely affronted Russian leaders who themselves are meddling in the bloody conflict. But most of all, it showed that Clinton foreign policy is no policy at all but a series of ad hoc decisions by officials who are far from agreement.

Only a week ago, Defense Secretary William Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili were proclaiming that the United States would not enter the war to prevent the fall of Gorazde and denigrating the effectiveness of air power in stopping the Serb offensive. But after offsetting corrections were issued by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, the stage was set for military action.

History's first U.S. air attack against Bosnian Serb troops unfolded almost on automatic pilot. The raid came under the aegis of a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of NATO power if so requested by peacekeeping forces. According to President Clinton, only a short time elapsed between the request of the U.N. commander and the dispatch of the planes -- evidently too short a period in which to alert the Kremlin. It was said to be "just the luck of the draw" that the aircraft were American.

The result was predictable testiness by the Russians, who themselves blindsided Washington in February by sending peace-keeping troops into Sarajevo just as NATO was poised to attack Serb positions around the city. President Boris Yeltsin, after a telephone conversation with President Clinton, said he insisted time and again "that such decisions cannot be taken without prior consultation." Mr. Clinton merely replied he had a "good talk" with Mr. Yeltsin, adding that "in the beginning he was concerned." The implication that Mr. Clinton's explanations worked was belied by Mr. Yeltsin's later complaints.

This whole episode is dismaying and dangerous, not least because the U.S. is getting deeper and deeper into the Yugoslav conflict -- what the military call "mission creep" -- before the administration has clearly defined its objectives. While U.S. public opinion is being conditioned for a large U.S. peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, U.S. military power is incurring the enmity of Serbs who might take revenge. Once again, U.S. policy-makers are not connecting cause and effect.

We hope the raid near Gorazde will prod the Serbs back to the peace table under conditions where Americans and Russians can work in harmony as the only outside powers that can end the conflict. Both nations should jointly insist on a quick cease fire, the withdrawal of Serb troops and an end to what Moscow calls the "provocations" of Muslim forces.

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