President Clinton’s push for airstrikes over Bosnia backfired in the belly of Europe, jeopardizing the United Nations mission and raising the prospect that U.S. ground troops will wade into the conflict.
As the president honored his nation’s fallen soldiers in Memorial Day ceremonies, Bosnian Serbs escalated their war by holding hundreds of peacekeepers hostage and snatching U.N. equipment.
The latest crisis in the former Yugoslavia was triggered by a NATO air raid requested and supported by Clinton. A longtime advocate of NATO force against Serb aggression, the president opined last Tuesday that the U.N. “made a mistake” in not calling for air power.
As NATO bombs fell two days later, Clinton praised the action and said he hoped the airstrikes “will convince the Bosnian-Serb leadership to end their violations of the exclusion zone and comply with their other agreement with the U.N.”
The Serbs did the exact opposite, and Clinton hasn’t mentioned Bosnia in public since Friday.
His aides defend the airstrikes but they are trying to shift blame to the U.N. for not taking precautions against hostage-takers. They say Clinton had wanted a broader list of targets to slow Serb aggression.
Horrifying footage of U.N. troops chained to potential NATO targets prompted the French to threaten a withdraw of its soldiers unless the U.N. and NATO agree to send reinforcements. Other allies, particularly the British, are under mounting pressure to re-examine their peacekeeping work.
Clinton needs to avoid a U.N. withdrawal, because he has long since committed up to 25,000 U.S. troops to extract peacekeepers. And the American public, focused on problems at home, shows little enthusiasm for putting troops directly at risk.
“They are not willing to commit their flesh and blood to that area of the world, and neither am I,” Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo, said Monday. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday that Americans would be caught by surprise if troops are deployed.
In a cutting bit of irony, Clinton’s influence over NATO and U.N. actions may have diminished as prospects for dispatching U.S. troops grew. The United States, which has no ground forces in Bosnia, now plans to defer as much as possible to allied nations with troops directly at risk.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent Monday in the Netherlands, where the United States and four European partners agreed to maintain the peacekeeping operation but regroup U.N. troops to make them less vulnerable.
Christopher said airstrikes were still an option.
But even as the allies agreed to stay the course, the Serb escalation has prompted planning that could put U.S. troops on the ground.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Clinton’s foreign policy team has reviewed contingency plans to rescue the trapped U.N. peacekeepers with commando raids.