Allies face bitter choices in Bosnia

April 19, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer Carl M. Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The collapse of Gorazde leaves President Clinton and America's allies with few means to bring the Bosnian war to a speedy end except military escalation or appeasement.

Two years after the siege of Sarajevo began and a year after Mr. Clinton failed to unite allies behind a single policy to halt the Bosnian carnage, the West's ragged stop-and-go tactics of diplomacy, threats and, finally, limited force have run out of string.

The United Nations Security Council has been unable to protect Gorazde, a U.N.-declared "safe area," or to advance peace negotiations.

And the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been unable to protect U.N. troops from being killed, taken hostage or being shot down, as was the case with a British jet Saturday.

Bosnian Serb control of Gorazde, besides exposing its Muslim population to what U.S. and U.N. officials fear could be a humanitarian disaster, gives the Bosnian Serbs another advance toward a link with Serbia proper.

While insisting that the United States is not walking away from Bosnia, administration officials face only bitter choices.

One is stepped-up NATO military action. Some of Mr. Clinton's top advisers favor a plan to create Sarajevo-style weapons-free "exclusion zones" in all six Bosnian safe areas, including Gorazde.

A senior official said that wider military action could be required and would necessitate agreement beforehand from NATO allies.

Bucking up Europeans

W. Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, told The Sun yesterday that the task facing the administration was keeping the Europeans from acting like "Paris had fallen" -- and giving up entirely.

Military options are hemmed in by Mr. Clinton's determination not to act unilaterally, not to take sides in the war and not to commit American ground troops. The Pentagon opposes military action in Bosnia, and any escalation would face strong congressional opposition.

But failure to retaliate against the Bosnian Serbs puts five other "safe areas" at risk, including Sarajevo, and threatens stability elsewhere in the Balkans.

Even against the history of Western efforts to contain the Bosnian civil war, the past week's effort to mix limited force and diplomacy stands out as a low point in Mr. Clinton's foreign policy record, exposing a series of flawed assumptions.

One assumption was that the Bosnian Serbs would follow their practice of halting aggression when faced with the credible threat of force.

Unlike in February, when the Bosnian Serbs agreed to pull back from Sarajevo and put their heavy weapons under U.N. control, the Serbs at Gorazde went on the offensive, harassed peacekeepers and ignored efforts to negotiate a truce.

Rather than empower NATO commanders to act decisively to halt Bosnian Serb gains, the United States and its allies sought political cover by giving the authority to use air strikes to the U.N. commander in Bosnia -- and only to protect U.N. forces.

Once air strikes were launched, the allies were unprepared with a follow-up strategy in case the bombing failed to yield results.

"No one seemed to have thought this through," says Richard Haass of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A second assumption was that Russia would be able to persuade the Serbs to cooperate.

Through much of last week, Russia's special envoy for Yugoslavia, Vitaly Churkin, was able to keep NATO jets from staging more retaliatory attacks by announcing that he was close to securing a cease-fire in Gorazde, which, in turn, would lead to an overall cessation of hostilities.

L But as he talked, Bosnian Serb tanks rolled toward the city.

On Saturday, when the fall of Gorazde seemed imminent, Russia weighed in again, claiming -- erroneously, it turned out -- that it had won a Bosnian Serb pledge to pull back from the besieged city.

A third false assumption was that, after more than a year of on-and-off disagreement over Bosnia, the United States, Britain and France finally were on the same wave length.

But after NATO air strikes April 10 and 11, any pretense of a joint allied-U.N. strategy fell apart.

And as the fall of Gorazde approached, top U.S. officials were unable to get their allies to agree on a tough response.

The major-power split late in the week may have hamstrung Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. commander in Bosnia, in trying to block the Bosnian Serb advances.

Only when Bosnian Serb tanks began firing into Gorazde and troops resumed their advance Saturday did Sir Michael request air support.

But a low cloud ceiling and rain aborted the air strikes before any bombs were dropped. The downed British plane was hunting for three tanks when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile.

Washington's public statements in the past week have given a mixed message about American resolve.

Mr. Clinton said early in the week that Western firmness had advanced the peace process.

On Friday, however, the White House emphasized that it wasn't taking sides in the war.

Mr. Clinton told reporters that NATO's role was to be "firm but not provocative and not try to change the military balance."

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