U.S. must send troops, Clinton says President presents case for enforcing peace deal in Bosnia

'Limited, focused' mission

Without deployment, renewed, wider war could erupt, he warns

November 28, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, moving to rally a skeptical public behind his plan to send 20,000 ground troops into Bosnia, told the nation last night that "our values and our responsibilities as Americans" require the United States to act for peace.

"We will have the chance to help stop the killing of innocent civilians, and especially children, and, at the same time, bring stability to Central Europe, a region of the world that is vital to our national interests," the president said in a televised Oval Office address to a prime-time national audience.

"If we're not there, NATO will not be there," he said. "The peace will collapse. The war will reignite. The slaughter of innocents will begin again."

The 20,000 U.S. soldiers would be part of a 60,000-man NATO force dispatched to enforce a cease-fire along a 600-mile border separating the factions in a civil war that has claimed an estimated 250,000 lives.

They would be enforcing a peace plan negotiated on U.S. soil, under intense American pressure -- and initialed by Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders last week in Dayton, Ohio.

"In the choice between peace and war, America must choose peace," the president said.

Mr. Clinton estimated that this job would take about one year, though he offered no firm deadline. He also addressed head-on the issue of most intense interest at home: the prospect of American casualties.

"There may be accidents in the field -- or incidents with people who have not given up their hatred," he said. "I will take every measure possible to minimize the risks. But we must be prepared for that possibility. I assume full responsibility for any harm that may come to them."

At the same time, he talked tough to the sides that have been engaged in a barbaric war against each other since the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia early in 1992.

"Anyone contemplating any action that would endanger our troops should know this: America protects its own," the president said. "Anyone -- anyone -- who takes on our troops will suffer the consequences. We will fight fire with fire -- and then some."

Mr. Clinton employed two distinct lines of argument in making his case last night. One was an appeal to the hearts of Americans, the other to their minds.

The emotional argument was that the peace agreement initialed in Dayton, Ohio, last week can end the ethnic slaughter, rape and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian civilians, especially the embattled Muslim population in Sarajevo and other cities. Scenes of that slaughter have horrified people around the world for more than three years.

"Horrors that we prayed had been banished from Europe forever have been seared into our minds," he said grimly, his hand clasped tightly on his desk. "Skeletal prisoners caged behind barbed wire fences, women and girls raped as an act of war, defenseless men and boys shot down into mass graves "

In his second argument, the president asserted that logic -- and history -- suggest that the failure to bring peace to Bosnia could result in a larger, wider and deadlier war that would inevitably involve the United States with far greater burdens on its military forces.

It has happened before, the president warned. He reminded Americans that World War I was set off when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg empire and that eventually most of Europe was dragged into the conflict. Ethnic fighting this time, administration officials fear, might draw in historic Balkan antagonists, including NATO allies Greece and Turkey; might ignite nascent Russian nationalism and eventually torpedo the relationship between the United States and the states of the former Soviet Union.

"A few weeks ago, I was privileged to spend some time with His Holiness Pope John Paul II when he came to America," Mr. Clinton recalled. "At the end of our meeting, the pope looked at me and said, 'I have lived through most of this century. I remember that it began with a war in Sarajevo. Mr. President, you must not let it end with a war in Sarajevo.' "

Mr. Clinton has stated for more than a year that U.S. ground troops might be needed to enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia. He has also repeatedly stated his willingness to use them for that purpose. Yet most public opinion polls have consistently shown broad-based antipathy to that course of action.

White House aides conceded yesterday that Mr. Clinton had not made much of a dent in the public's doubts. The president was hoping that last night's speech would begin to turn public opinion around -- and he dealt head-on with the primary concerns that have emerged in polls and focus groups of voters.

"America's role will not be about fighting a war, it will be about helping the people of Bosnia secure their own peace," Mr. Clinton said. "Our mission will be limited, focused and under the command of an American general."

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