President Clinton headed off to Bosnia on Sunday to spread holiday cheer - and carry the news that he wants U.S. troops to remain indefinitely as the region recovers from its devastating war.
Without commenting, the president left the White House by helicopter and flew to Andrews Air Force Base for the all-night journey to Sarajevo. He was joined by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their college-student daughter Chelsea, a huge hit with the GIs on her last visit in 1996.
While in Bosnia, the president planned to meet with Bosnia’s joint presidency and deliver a speech in Sarajevo before flying to Tuzla to share a holiday meal with American soldiers posted in that northern Bosnia city. He returns to Washington early Tuesday.
Foggy weather Sunday night in Aviano, Italy, forced a small change in travel plans, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. Air Force One will fly to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the party will transfer to a smaller plane to continue the trip to Sarajevo.
The change was not expected to appreciably affect the length of Clinton’s stay.
The White House hoped the visit would lend an appropriate personal touch to Clinton’s decision to maintain an American presence in the war-torn Balkans beyond the June 1998 deadline. Besides his family, Clinton took along a top-level delegation that includes former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole; his wife Elizabeth, president of the American Red Cross; and a number of congressional Republicans.
On Sunday, Clinton aides made the rounds of the weekly news talk shows to defend the extension Clinton is seeking. They said U.S. involvement is needed to anchor NATO’s peacekeeping mission and prevent resumed warfare, and continuing the mission indefinitely does not mean American troops would stay put for an unreasonable amount of time.
“There’s a difference between saying it’s indefinite and it’s infinite,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“We ought to stay until the seeds of peace have taken much deeper root and can become self-sustaining,” Cohen said. “I think if we pulled the troops out, I’m satisfied that other NATO members would also do likewise. … We’d see a resumption of fighting on scales that might even exceed what took place before.”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said on ABC that Clinton should allow a U.S. pullout next June, in order to keep the deployment from becoming permanent. But he said he doubted that would happen.
National security adviser Sandy Berger, also appearing on ABC, said an extended mission will let U.S. troops help Bosnian forces move to the next phase in capturing war criminals.
“It is not the mission of the military to go door-to-door and to be on a hunt-and-search operation,” Berger said. “But getting war criminals, bringing them to justice, is not only morally correct here, but it’s important in terms of breaking the hold of these obstructionists on the peace process.”
Cohen said even if U.S. soldiers do not pursue war criminals, an extension would force fugitives such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to remain underground and out of power.