The Clinton administration pressed hard Wednesday to win a show of congressional support for the deployment of 20,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia, but made little headway with its sometimes inconsistent statements.
With polls showing a majority of Americans opposed and the percentage rising, the president, his national security adviser, defense secretary, and top military officials appeared before Congress, the media and supporters in a campaign to shift public opinion.
Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, said only 7 percent of the 300 calls to his office supported the deployment, and the percentage was worse in other districts. He said the House will wait for a Senate vote on what is expected to be a statement of conditional support for the forces. That vote has been delayed until next week due to dissatisfaction among Republicans.
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is co-authoring the resolution, said there was “great skepticism here in the Congress and amongst the people that I represent about this enterprise,” in part because the administration had not promised in writing to arm the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
“I do not understand why you place so little value on the public statements by the president, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of state that we are going to do this,” replied U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who helped negotiate the agreement.
Top officials gave different statements in different locations on the question of how long the force would remain in Bosnia and precisely what it would be doing there. Defense officials seemed more sure-footed than the White House.
President Clinton told a newly formed support group that included former President Carter, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the 12-month deployment of U.S. troops was flexible and could be lengthened. “He did not indicate that a 12-month limit is an absolute, rigid, iron-clad limit,” Brzezinski told reporters. But Secretary of Defense William Perry told the Senate an extension would be “weeks” at most.
In another inconsistency, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake dodged a reporter’s question on when the NATO force would open all roads between the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian government - a key issue that will help determine whether Bosnia is partitioned into ethnic enclaves as sought by the Bosnian Serbs or can begin the process of restoring a single multi-ethnic country as sought by the Muslim-led Sarajevo government.
“There will be the right to freedom of movement, and we will see that right exercised,” Lake said, leaving the question open. Hours later, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate committee the NATO implementation force “has freedom of movement throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina.” He said “We really have to exercise that, if for no other reason than that we need to resupply ourselves. But we also want to do it to ensure that freedom of movement exists.”