Bosnia policy lacks clear goals

April 24, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Carl M. Cannon and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Half a world away, Bosnia Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist with no military training -- who himself takes anti-depressants to regulate mood swings -- sits in a house, overseeing a ragtag, undisciplined army of 80,000 men, 400 tanks and 20 airplanes.

In the White House, President Clinton sits as commander in chief of the United States and first among equals of NATO's leaders. They have a fighting force in Europe of 2.6 million men, 23,000 tanks and 1,600 attack jets. More than 100 of those planes are poised to respond to any Serbian defiance of NATO's ultimatum Friday to quiet their guns.

Yet Mr. Karadzic has won almost every battle and test of wills with Mr. Clinton, NATO and the United Nations. The reason, say specialists of Balkan politics, is that Mr. Karadzic knows exactly what he wants -- to kick the Bosnian Muslims out of ancient Serbian homelands -- and he is willing to use all the weapons at his command.

Mr. Clinton's military goals are far less clear, military analysts say, and so far he has been unwilling to use more than a fraction of the firepower at his disposal. The Clinton administration has not offered even a clear vision of what it would like to happen in the former Yugoslavia, beyond a desire for more peace talks.

Inexorably, however, the United States is becoming more deeply involved in the civil war in Bosnia. The Clinton administration denies it is going to war against the Serbs, but it is clearly siding with Bosnia's Muslim-led government.

Last night, another NATO-imposed deadline came and went. This time, the Serbs were warned that if they did not withdraw from around Gorazde, U.S. pilots would begin a bombing campaign to make the Serbs retreat from the town -- and adjourn to the peace table.

From the first day of the Clinton presidency, White House foreign policy advisers have tried to steer a course between Mr. Clinton's two conflicting impulses.

The first is his desire to stop the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing." But his second and competing impulse is to avoid sending U.S. soldiers into the Balkans.

Even as Mr. Clinton pledged increased NATO action after the Serbian attack on Gorazde, he was firm on this point. Asked if he would send U.S. troops, the president gave an emphatic "No."

The United States and its allies kept hoping that warnings and threats from the United Nations and NATO would suffice. Eventually, the threats and warnings began to lose credibility, requiring intervention to restore it.

First there was the NATO no-fly zone to prevent Serbs from launching air attacks on the Muslims. On Feb. 28, six Serbian bombers violated the zone, and U.S. planes shot down four.

Then there was the creation of the exclusion zone around Sarajevo, banning Serbian heavy weapons from 12 miles outside the city. The threat of NATO air attacks and Russian intervention persuaded the Serbs to withdraw their weapons or give them to U.N. peacekeepers. But in recent days, the Serbs have violated the zone, seizing back some of their weapons and taking some U.N. peacekeepers hostage.

The Gorazde crisis began with a mixed signal from the United States. As Serbs besieged the safe area of Gorazde and the town of Prijedor on April 3, Defense Secretary William J. Perry was asked whether the United States would do anything to stop it.

"We will not enter the war to stop that from happening," he replied.

By April 6, at a meeting of the president's top advisers, the policy shifted, with advocates of more forceful action, led by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright; Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake; and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher prevailing over Pentagon skeptics.

Last Tuesday, top aides gave the president a plan for Sarajevo-style "exclusion zones" in Gorazde and four other U.N.-declared "safe areas": Zepa, Srebrenica, Tuzla and Bihac.

Under the proposal, the NATO commander, U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith in Naples, Italy, would select the targets and order the attacks.

It may be possible to bomb the Serbs back to the negotiating table, but if that doesn't happen, allied diplomats concede, NATO might have to meet yet again to produce another, perhaps more aggressive, approach.

Critics say the Clinton administration does not seem to anticipate what might happen if the Serbs don't cooperate or if they go back on their word.

Mr. Clinton was asked at his news conference Friday how the United States would extricate itself from Balkans. He virtually conceded that those plans rest on the "hope" that the Serbs choose peace.

Nor has Mr. Clinton spent much time persuading Americans that U.S. interests are at stake in Bosnia. Surveys show that the American public is divided and confused.

This challenge will become all the more important for Mr. Clinton if coffins containing U.S. pilots start arriving home. "If you're not prepared for that, you should not take the first step," said Sen. Sam Nunn, Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Mr. Nunn said the allies should be ready to escalate "all the way to Serbia."

But the president said that going into Serbia would "not be appropriate at this time," citing the main obstacle -- the certain opposition of Russia, a longtime ally of the Serbs.

But even that step, some analysts say, might not be enough.

"The Serbs have been fighting for 500 years for what they consider to be their national independence and dignity," said former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. "They are not going to be impressed by a half-hearted military effort."

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