President Clinton has decided to fly to Bosnia-Herzegovina next week, both to spread some holiday cheer among U.S. peacekeeping forces there and to underscore what he believes is the need for an extended American presence to finish reconstructing the war-torn country, officials said Sunday.
Clinton probably will leave Washington either next Sunday night or next Monday night and visit both Sarajevo, the capital, and Tuzla, the major base for U.S. troops, during a whirlwind trip in which he will be on the ground for roughly 12 to 14 hours, officials said.
The president traditionally makes an appearance with military personnel during the holiday season. Aides said they figured soldiers serving in Bosnia under restrictive rules and at some risk to their safety deserve recognition and a morale boost.
But the trip also will serve to showcase a Clinton foreign policy success even as he tries to build the case back home for why U.S. troops may have to remain in Bosnia beyond the June 1998 deadline he has set for their withdrawal.
“It’s a chance to highlight what’s been done and to make people realize that we have made a real contribution there,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s important for people to see what American leadership has brought about.”
The trip comes at a critical moment in Bosnia policy-making. European leaders are pushing the United States to remain part of a NATO-led international peacekeeping force after next summer and have threatened to pull out if the United States does.
Such an across-the-board withdrawal could lead to a breakdown of the fragile stability forged over the past two years in Bosnia, Western officials believe, and possibly could lead even to a resumption of the ethnic war that ravaged the region from 1992 to 1995.
Clinton and many of his senior advisers appear predisposed toward U.S. troops staying in Bosnia and have begun laying the political groundwork with congressional leaders. Although no formal decision has been made, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has said “a consensus is developing” for a continued U.S. military presence.
But the administration is debating internally what form such a presence should take and whether to reduce the U.S. force, which makes up about 8,000 of the more than 30,000 foreign troops. Presented a draft set of options recently, Clinton concluded they were too limited and directed his foreign policy advisers to consider a wider range of scenarios.