Few oppose keeping GIs in Bosnia U.S. weighs staying beyond June deadline

November 08, 1997|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With an ease that would have been impossible a few years ago, President Clinton is laying the groundwork for keeping a substantial number of American troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina well beyond his declared pullout date of June. The White House insists that Clinton has reached no final decision to keep a force in Bosnia, let alone how many troops it would contain, what its purpose would be or how long it would stay.

But administration aides are making the case that keeping an international force in Bosnia beyond June is essential to preserving the progress achieved in the two years since the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

The impression is widespread that Clinton is intent on keeping U.S. troops in the land where a three-year war left 200,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, and led to some of the worst human rights atrocities since World War II.

"To me, the decision's already been made on a continued military presence in Bosnia," said Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana ,, Republican who heads a House subcommittee on military personnel.

Powerful pressures are working against making any change in the American presence, according to an official of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Since Clinton spoke with more than 30 key members of Congress on Tuesday, no groundswell of opposition has emerged.

But Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is believed to have spoken prematurely in asserting after the Clinton meeting that a consensus was developing to keep troops in Bosnia.

"That was certainly not the meeting I went to," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is an influential figure on military affairs and is highly skeptical about extending the mission.

McCain sums up the dilemma this way: "It's in our national interest to see that there not be renewed conflict. At the same time, it's far more of a European problem than an American problem."

There are signs of some disagreement in the administration, especially between Albright, who has long favored forceful U.S. action in Bosnia, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

During his confirmation hearing early this year, Cohen told Congress the troops would leave in June 1998. But a senior defense official said this week, "I think that he sees the circumstances today are different than when he took office."

The absence of a groundswell of resistance to keeping U.S. troops in place reflects the extent to which Congress and the public have come to accept at least a temporary American presence in Bosnia. Before the Dayton peace accords, the notion of putting U.S. ground troops in potential harm in the Balkans filled many Washington politicians with dread.

The shift reflects the success of the mission so far and the fact that there have been no significant U.S. casualties, says Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who favors keeping American forces in Bosnia after June.

"I don't want to jinx it, but you do not have body bags being sent home," Biden said in an interview. "And even though there is a great distance to go to implement Dayton, the carnage has stopped."

With 8,000 troops on the ground, the U.S. contingent is the largest in the 33,000-member peacekeeping force.

Officials point to signs of progress in overcoming the ethnic war, all helped in some way by the presence of NATO troops: Weaponry has been destroyed, the strength of Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces has been curbed, local and national elections have been conducted safely and many refugees have returned home.

Outside Bosnian Serb-controlled areas, the economy has grown. Roads and bridges have been fixed, and about a fourth of indicted war criminals are in custody.

Equally important are the evident failures: The two most powerful accused war criminals, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime military chief, and Radovan Karadzic, its wartime leader, remain free to wield their influence among their fellow Serbs. Bosnia's Muslims and Croats have not been reconciled with Serbs, and mutual suspicion lurks beneath the surface cooperation between Muslims and Croats, observers say.

If the NATO-led peacekeepers leave, the three sides might again be at one another's throats, eventually wasting the $8 billion spent on Bosnia by U.S. taxpayers, says Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia.

If Clinton has decided on keeping U.S. troops in Bosnia, as many believe, debate continues inside and outside the administration on how big a presence is necessary.

Buyer, for one, says he favors a U.S. "rapid response brigade" that would be stationed outside Bosnia, perhaps in Hungary, and could come to the aid of European troops in Bosnia.

Biden says a sizable U.S. ground force is needed to preserve American command of the operation but says the troops could be reduced if more progress is made by summer.

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