Ehrlich criticizes Clinton, calls for Balkan cease-fire

Md. Republican cites lack of clear U.S. interests, ever-changing objectives

War In Yugoslavia

May 21, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Three weeks after voting to support the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called yesterday for a cease-fire in the Balkans and denounced President Clinton's handling of the conflict.

The Baltimore County Republican said the flawed bombing campaign directed by the White House and NATO, which has resulted in the unintended deaths of many civilians, had drained him of patience and prompted his change of position. On April 29, Ehrlich voted with 212 other House members for a resolution supporting the bombing, although he had expressed reservations about Clinton's strategy.

"I'm just getting tired of getting up every morning and reading about another school or bus or hospital or embassy being blown up," Ehrlich said. "We must stop this killing and destruction before more innocent lives are lost."

He said the Clinton administration should join with NATO and the Russians to negotiate a return of the Kosovar refugees under outside military protection.

Ehrlich is the second Marylander on Capitol Hill to oppose the bombing campaign, joining Western Maryland Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, who has opposed the effort from the beginning. In varying degrees, the other six House members and the state's two senators have supported the NATO campaign as part of an effort to stop "ethnic cleansing."

Ehrlich's change of position was announced in a statement faxed to reporters. He elaborated on his comments in a subsequent interview.

Even as he denounced the effort of Serbian forces to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo, Ehrlich criticized Clinton for failing to articulate a convincing reason for U.S. military involvement.

"I am increasingly concerned with NATO's conduct of its Serbian bombing campaign," Ehrlich said. "The lack of a clear U.S. strategic interest and the ever-changing objectives of the air campaign make this mission a less-than-desirable way to expend our assets and, in the process, place at risk the lives of our young men and women in uniform."

Ehrlich serves as a deputy to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who calls the conflict "Clinton's war." But Ehrlich said yesterday that his remarks had nothing to do with partisanship.

"This is not a function of any Republican politics," he said. "I'm paid to speak publicly on important issues. When members of Congress speak up in strong numbers, the executive branch tends to pay attention."

Ehrlich's statement drew a rebuke from Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who has called for the use of ground troops in Kosovo. Ehrlich's recommendation of a cease-fire is a recipe for disaster, Gilchrest said.

"That would be the worst thing we can do," said Gilchrest, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. "We have to prevail."

Gilchrest has questioned whether airstrikes will be sufficient to dislodge Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic or aid the return of refugees.

"We have this psychotic, bizarre, brilliant teen-ager in the White House," he said, referring to Clinton, "so it makes it difficult to assess what all these other reasonably intelligent people [in the administration] are doing."

Instead of reducing its attacks, Gilchrest said, NATO must increase military pressure to force a Serbian retreat and allow Kosovars to return home under NATO protection before winter sets in.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who has worked on human rights issues in the Balkans as a member of the Helsinki Commission, also favors the use of ground troops.

Bartlett has joined a lawsuit filed by more than 25 representatives who contend that the bombing is a violation of the War Powers Act because Clinton did not seek congressional approval. Bartlett opposes any such approval.

"The whole thing was botched from the very beginning," Bartlett said. "There are several war criminals over there. Nobody over there has clean hands."

Others Marylanders on Capitol Hill are convinced of the need for continued military pressure against Milosevic.

"It's important that we remain committed to NATO's goals," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican. "I would like it to be over, but I don't think we would accomplish anything if we retreat. That's what [a cease-fire] would be -- a retreat."

Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat, and Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the bombings are starting to show results.

"It is absolutely essential that we demonstrate some will and some perseverance," Wynn said. "It is absolutely not the time to cut and run, nor the time to settle for a piecemeal deal."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released the following statement: "I support the NATO air campaign. We must show patience and perseverance in carrying out the strategy developed by a united NATO."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who served on the joint House-Senate committee that drafted the emergency spending bill that would provide $5 billion for the military operations, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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