The Clinton administration Tuesday reluctantly appeared to be heading toward having the United States assume a broader role in BosniaHerzegovina than it has ever had in the course of that country’s bloody three-year civil war.
Amid mounting attacks by separatist Bosnian Serbs on United Nations peacekeepers, U.S. officials said they will consider sending American ground troops to Bosnia to help move and protect the 22,000-member U.N. forces as they regroup in positions that can be better defended.
While U.S. officials insisted that American personnel would not assume a combat role, the declaration by Clinton aides marked a departure from the administration’s previous stance that the United States would send ground troops to Bosnia only to help evacuate U.N. soldiers or to police a political settlement there.
“We’ve said we’ll be there … to respond,” said White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry, who portrayed the new stance as part of the stated U.S. commitment to assist the peacekeepers in a non-combat role. “We understand what our obligations are as a leader of the (NATO) alliance, and the president would be prepared to act on that type of request.”
The declaration came four days after Bosnian Serbs seized 370 U.N. peacekeepers in retaliation for North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes last Friday.
U.S. officials stressed that they won’t know precisely how their allies will want American troops to serve in Bosnia until military planners complete their analyses, now under way behind closed doors.
But the U.S. forces would probably be involved in assisting U.N. troops as they move from widely scattered positions in strife torn Bosnia into a smaller number of more strongly fortified concentrations. Those areas may be linked to each other by U.N.protected roads.
Meeting with his counterparts in the Netherlands, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the United States was ready to help its allies by supplying equipment and airlift capacity, if necessary.
British army troops began flying into Bosnia, marking the start of an influx of reinforcements that is to add more than 6,000 British soldiers within the next few weeks.
Some 2,000 U.S. Marine specialists in amphibious warfare were dispatched Tuesday for the Adriatic, where the USS Theodore Roosevelt, with 50 warplanes, is already deployed. The sending of the Marines was described as only a precaution by officials.
But in an interview on the “MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,” Secretary of Defense William Perry said Marines in the Adriatic could be in a NATO force to help withdraw U.N. troops, with prior Congressional approval.
Aides insisted the new U.S. military assistance role in Bosnia, if undertaken, would not mark a policy shift because it grows out of American promises to support U.N peacekeeping contingent. “We’ve said we would participate in a NATO-run evacuation or withdrawal from Bosnia … and we have agreed to work with our allies in strengthening” the U.N. peacekeeping forces, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
U.S. officials declined to rule out a mission to rescue the peacekeepers who are being held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs to protect their positions. But U.N. officials said such a risky effort was unlikely.
The prospect of any American casualties in the Balkans could inflict a heavy political penalty, as administration officials are well aware. But they argued that the American public is in fact deeply torn on the issue, wanting to see justice done, and U.S. soldiers’ lives protected.
“When the American people check in on this issue they want to know two things: ‘Are we sending troops? And is there a holocaust going on that we stop?”’ said one senior official. “The problem is, if you say there is a holocaust, they want to do something about it. But they don’t want our people to get killed.”
This ambivalence is borne out in the polls. While surveys have shown a strong aversion to dispatching U.S. troops, a University of Maryland poll taken this spring found 64 percent approved of the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing. And 60 percent said they approved even if U.S. troops risked significant casualties.
Although other Republican presidential candidates oppose any U.S. troop involvement, Sen. Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., did not immediately reject all use of American forces in Bosnia.
“Under certain circumstances, yes,” said Dole, who has sharply attacked Clinton on other aspects of the Bosnian policy, during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “To rescue personnel, but not to rescue equipment.”
During his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton castigated thenPresident Bush for failing to stop Bosnian Serb aggression. “The legitimacy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ cannot stand,” he declared then, referring to the Bosnian Serbs’ use of murder, rape and other means to expel Bosnian Muslims and Croats from certain areas.
xxxx THE PEACEKEEPERS Peacekeepers numbers. The United Nations mission to Bosnia has 20,887 peacekeepers. The major contributing countries are France with 3,493 soldiers; Britain 3,283; Pakistan 2,973; Malaysia 1,539; Netherlands 1,485; Turkey 1,468; Spain 1,402; Bangladesh 1,239; Sweden 995; and Canada 801. The U.S. has no peacekeepers. Peacekeepers killed. Of the 166 peacekeepers killed in the former Yugoslavia since 1992, 87 have died in Bosnia. Peacekeepers held. After last week’s NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb military targets, more than 380 U.N. peacekeepers and unarmed military observers have been detained or are unable to escape. France has more than 170 soldiers being held as human shields or encircled by Serbs. More than 100 Canadians and Ukrainians have been taken hostage or are severely restricted in their movements.