Troops unlikely to go to Bosnia, U.S. officials say

September 07, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After a campaign of bombing and aggressive diplomacy, the Clinton administration expressed confidence yesterday that it won't have to send U.S. troops into Bosnia's dangerous terrain this fall to help withdraw United Nations peacekeepers.

President Clinton had pledged to send up to 25,000 U.S. troops to help in any U.N. pullout from Bosnia, and the likelihood that some of those troops would be killed or wounded has hung heavily over the administration.

Now that the West has united behind a tougher posture, the administration says, it has dodged a bullet.

"I think the prospect of an UNPROFOR withdrawal has completely gone away," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, referring to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

Instead, planners in Western capitals have shifted their attention to designing a force, including Americans, that would guarantee any settlement between Bosnian Muslims and Croats on one side and Bosnian Serbs on the other. If Bosnia's warriors are serious about peace, such a force would be less likely to suffer casualties.

After briefing representatives of Islamic countries in Paris today, U.S. officials will try tomorrow in Geneva to get the warring sides to agree to a series of peace principles leading to negotiations.

U.S. and diplomatic officials were careful not to raise expectations for the negotiations, and all acknowledged that tough obstacles ahead.

"It is, after all, Bosnia," said a U.N. Security Council diplomat.

In a closed briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff and Deputy Defense Secretary John White reportedly avoided predicting how long the U.N. peacekeepers would stay.

But even with peace prospects uncertain and bombs still falling, there is a growing sense here that a threshold has been crossed in a crisis that has dogged Mr. Clinton persistently and weakened the United States' standing as a world leader.

Earlier this summer, a U.N. withdrawal looked increasingly likely. Peacekeepers had failed to carry out their jobs in the face of mounting Serbian aggression against Muslim civilian enclaves. Pressure built in Congress to arm the outgunned Muslim-led Bosnian army so it could better defend itself.

Officials of Britain and France, the two biggest contributors to the U.N. peacekeeping force, warned that if a last-ditch effort to strengthen the peacekeepers failed, they would have to withdraw their troops. An American decision to arm the Bosnians, they said, also would prompt a withdrawal.

A decision would have to be made this month to complete the withdrawal before the hazardous Balkan winter set in, they said at the time. Thus, Mr. Clinton faced the prospect of having to send U.S. forces to Bosnia to help in a humiliating retreat by the United Nations and the West.

Now, a diplomat on the Security Council said, "We appear to have moved beyond the withdrawal of UNPROFOR to consideration of what form a force to implement a peace agreement would take." The official said peacekeepers probably would be withdrawn only if all-out fighting resumes in Bosnia.

The congressional drive to override a Clinton veto and lift the arms embargo against Bosnia's Muslims has flagged, supporters acknowledge. That drive is believed to have helped galvanize the administration into asserting American leadership instead of taking a back seat to Europeans in trying to settle the conflict.

But peace would bring its own problems for Mr. Clinton. Chief among them is his commitment to send U.S. ground troops to help enforce it and having them there during his re-election campaign.

Getting congressional support for this open-ended deployment will be difficult. Republicans, who control both houses, are skeptical that the three-way division of Bosnia proposed by the administration will last and fear that U.S. troops could be dragged into hostilities to preserve it.

Reaching a settlement also poses unpalatable choices. At today's meeting in Paris, for instance, Mr. Tarnoff will have to sit down with, among others, a representative of Iran, which backs the Bosnian Muslims.

The administration also will have to be more generous toward President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who inspired Bosnian Serb aggression, than officials think he deserves. He is seeking a lifting of United Nations-imposed sanctions and acceptance by the West.

And even if Mr. Milosevic agrees to settle, it's uncertain whether he can force the still-defiant Bosnian Serbs to go along.

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