In one of the strongest rebuffs yet of President Clinton’s authority in foreign policy, the Senate voted, 69-29, Wednesday to lift an embargo on sales of arms to participants in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Despite strong pressure from the White House to oppose the measure, 21 Democrats joined all but five Republicans to create enough of a margin to override a presidential veto, which Clinton has promised to make.
“It is not about politics,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole , R-Kan., co-sponsor of the measure. “It is about whether some small country that has been ravaged on all sides, pillaged, women raped, children killed, do they have any rights in this world?”
The House already voted overwhelmingly to lift the embargo. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said representatives must hold another vote on the issue because the existing provision is attached to other legislation that faces a veto threat.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said that with the vote, senators are substituting their judgment for that of the president, secretary of state, the ambassador to the United Nations and the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff. “And good luck to all of us,” he added, “because there are going to be an awful lot of people who are going to end up dying as a result.”
Yet even if the the House passes the measure and both bodies override a veto, Dole and co-sponsor Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., wrote several escape hatches into the legislation, making it unlikely that the United States will ever ship weaponry to the beleaguered Bosnian government army in defiance of the embargo, imposed by the U.N. Security Council against the Balkans.
The measure, would, for example, not take force until there is a withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from Bosnia or their requested ouster by the Bosnian government.
For that reason, the measure is likely to affect American politics far more than it does warfare in Bosnia, where the rebel Serbs continued to besiege the U.N.-designated “safe area” of Bihac.
On Wednesday, U.N. officials, the United States and its allies also resolved a much-disputed system for calling airstrikes to protect Bosnian “safe areas.”
The vote forces Clinton back into the Bosnia debate, reminding the public once more that his administration has failed to stop the bloodshed, and, in turn, increasing pressure on him to find a solution.
At the same time, if his veto is overridden, Clinton will have been rebuffed by Congress on a foreign policy issue as few presidents have been.