With a blunt admission that he misjudged how long it would take to build lasting peace in Bosnia, President Clinton announced Thursday that he has decided in principle to keep U.S. military forces there past a June 1998 deadline and into the indefinite future.
While the administration remains in the midst of an internal debate over how many U.S. troops should stay in Bosnia and precisely what they should do, Clinton said pulling out the U.S. force now would invite a return to the ethnic violence that made one in 10 Bosnians a casualty of war before a U.S.-brokered peace settlement two years ago.
Rather than bringing the 8,000 U.S. troops home by June 30, administration officials say the options now receiving most serious consideration by Clinton would reduce this figure only modestly - and conceivably not at all - and that the essential mission of the troops would remain unchanged.
But instead of setting a fixed date for when American “follow-on” troops would be withdrawn, he said their return would be based on a set of “benchmarks,” goals to be established by U.S. and NATO allies.
The benchmarks, Clinton said, would include determining whether state institutions linking the Serb entity and the Muslim-Croat federation are strong enough once the troops leave; whether the political parties have relinquished power of the news media; whether the civilian police force has the size, training and management to do its job; and whether American and NATO officials have confidence that the military is under civilian rule.
Senior military officials say this could keep American troops in the Balkans for at least two years and up to 2007.
Clinton also said that making “war criminals answer for their crimes” is a key ingredient for stability in the region.
However, neither the president nor National Security Adviser Sandy Berger would say specifically whether or not arresting Bosnian-Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and others accused of war crimes will be one of the benchmarks.
In opting for benchmarks instead of a fixed date for withdrawal, Clinton acknowledged that he erred last year in promising American troops would leave in June, 1998.
“I honestly believed in 18 months we could get this done at the time I said it,” Clinton said yesterday. “It wasn’t right - which is why I don’t want to make that error again.”
Clinton would not say how long he expected troops to stay in the region.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for us to stay until everybody wants to go have tea together at 4 p.m. in the afternoon in a civil environment,” Clinton said.
But at the Pentagon, senior defense officials said the military was planning to stay at least two more years.
With Clinton set to leave for Bosnia in three days to visit troops for the Christmas holiday, his announcement prompted divergent reactions among members of the Republican majority in Congress, which must approve funds for an extended U.S. military presence in Bosnia.
Some influential voices on Bosnia policy, such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., praised Clinton for stating more forthrightly than he has in the past what remains for the U.S. military to do in Bosnia. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted that Clinton was breaking his second deadline for bringing troops home and that the benchmarks the president mentioned Thursday were far too vague to prevent the military from being bogged down in an expensive and indefinite commitment.
For two months or more, administration officials from White House national security adviser Berger to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have been signaling broadly that an extension of the U.S. military mission is inevitable. Still, officials said Thursday, Clinton had to make it explicit now in order to begin the task of persuading Congress and to reassure European allies, who have warned that they have no intention of staying in Bosnia if the United States goes.
Even so, Clinton Thursday, in explaining why his decision was “in principle,” set down conditions for U.S. participation in a follow-on to the current Stabilization Force, which has more than 30,000 troops on the ground. U.S. involvement after June, he said, is contingent on the United States remaining in command and an increase in the European share of the force. In addition, Clinton said, “the cost must be manageable” - though neither he nor other administration officials Thursday would estimate what an extension might cost.