Clinton admits Bosnia error U.S. troops to remain with NATO forces in an open-ended stay

No timetable for pullout

Firm 'benchmarks' would signal return of stability to Balkans

December 19, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews | Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, admitting that he'd been wrong about how long it would take to stabilize Bosnia, said yesterday that U.S. troops will remain there with other NATO forces in an open-ended commitment.

The president, who plans to visit Bosnia on Sunday to review the 8,500 U.S. troops stationed there, declined to estimate how long American forces might be required to remain in that partitioned Eastern European nation.

"I honestly believed that in 18 months we could get this done," Clinton told reporters. "I wasn't right, so I don't want to make that error again."

Instead of a timetable, Clinton offered new criteria for a withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Bosnia, namely a series of "concrete benchmarks" that would signal the return of stability to the Balkans.

Those benchmarks include:

Apprehending those accused of the most serious war crimes. Officials didn't name them, but they include former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the Serbian military chief, Ratko Mladic.

Strengthening civilian police forces, which would take over some functions now performed by NATO peacekeepers.

Completing the training and equipment of a Bosnian military force, creating a balance of military power between Muslims and Serbs.

Establishing multiethnic government institutions, such as a proposed joint presidency that includes a Muslim, a Serb and a Croat.

Ending the use by ethnic factions of the media to whip up public hatred against rival groups, a tactic that played a key role in inciting ethnic murder.

Returning refugees to their homes.

"I am not suggesting a permanent presence in Bosnia," the president said. "I am suggesting that it's a more honest thing to do to say what our objectives are and that these objectives should be pursued, and [that] they can be pursued at an affordable cost with fair burden-sharing with the Europeans. If that can be done, we should pursue them."

Clinton's new doctrine generated immediate criticism from members of Congress, who said he is going beyond the role envisioned for the United States in the agreement that ended the Bosnian war. The accord, reached in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, concluded a three-year war in which 200,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless amid some of the worst atrocities since World War II.

Clinton's conditions are nebulous, critics said, and the new framework, in effect, would hold U.S. troops hostage to civilian events over which they have no control.

"Our troops will never know where the goal line is," said Gary Hoitsma, a spokesman for Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

"We are seriously concerned about what the impact is going to be on overall military readiness," he added. "It was supposed to be one year [at a cost of] $1 billion. Now, it's three years and up to $7 to $8 billion with no end in sight."

Congressional aides predicted that opposition would mount if U.S. soldiers are killed. So far, none has died in Bosnian fighting. But a flash point looms in March in Brcko, where the question of whether Muslims or Serbs will control the town is to be decided by arbitration.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a prominent critic of the Bosnia operation, said: "Restating the political goals of the Dayton accords as the president has done, and tying the U.S. military presence to achieving these lagging political objectives, is not sufficient or appropriate for defining a military mission."

The need for Clinton to spell out a clear "exit strategy" was expressed by McCain, a conservative, and by Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, a liberal Democrat.

The Clinton administration, Feingold said in a statement, "has extended deadlines and extended deadlines. Now they are abandoning deadlines altogether and instead want to set so-called benchmarks. What they haven't done is to define a concrete exit strategy for our American troops."

In expectation of such criticism, the Clinton administration marshaled arguments -- and allies -- in rebuttal.

Clinton stressed that former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, his 1996 Republican presidential opponent, supported the administration's goals. The president also signed up a bipartisan congressional group to accompany him to the region this weekend, saying that he won't proceed with his plan without the support of Congress and the American people.

Clinton administration officials responded to comparisons with Vietnam by pointing out that Vietnam involved a steady buildup, while in Bosnia, the U.S. involvement has been dwindling.

"We started with 27,000, went down to 8,500, and I don't know what the [new] force size will be," said Samuel R. Berger, the White House national security adviser. "But it certainly will not be larger than we have now."

The president graphically described the violence in Bosnia and explained at length why he believes it has been so important for the United States to lead the way in attempting to end it.

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