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America From Abroad : Allies Fret While Clinton Fiddles Over Bosnia : A chance for peace may be lost. And Europe can't afford a Vietnam-style quagmire, many say.

February 09, 1993|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — As the new Clinton Administration continues to weigh its policy alternatives regarding the ongoing warfare in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere in the former Yugoslav republics, many European officials are deeply concerned that Washington may somehow drag them into a Vietnam-style quagmire in the Balkans.

These officials see the Bosnia peace plan negotiated by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen as the best of a number of bad alternatives and fear that President Clinton, in his eagerness to find a better solution, may instead scuttle the only viable approach.

And they are increasingly worried that Clinton may press forward on campaign pledges to crack down hard on Serbia without fully appreciating the long-term military consequences.

"There are perhaps 200,000 armed men in Bosnia, and to sort it all out, it is not unreasonable to suggest the need for a half-million troops to disarm them all," British military historian John Keegan said. "Well, that all begins to sound like Vietnam."

Ironically, the European concerns are the mirror image of the Clinton Administration's view. It sees the U.N.-sponsored Vance-Owen approach as doomed to failure because it tends to reward the aggressors in the conflict.

Over the weekend, U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin was in Europe consulting with diplomats there on the situation. The new Administration said at the weekend that it will unveil its own peace initiative within a few days--one meant to produce a settlement more acceptable to the Muslims of Bosnia. The Vance-Owen plan would partition the republic into 10 cantons--three predominantly Muslim, three Serbian, three Croatian and one mixed--under a weak central government.

Administration officials say they hope their effort to come up with a better alternative can be carried out without any direct U.S. military action--putting aside for the time being, at least, proposals for air attacks on Serbian forces that Clinton made during the campaign.

But the Europeans are clearly unconvinced.

"The big question mark is why Clinton and (Secretary of State) Warren Christopher are delaying approving this desperately needed (Vance-Owen) plan," said Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of London's prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Maybe they haven't been properly briefed yet, but from this side of the Atlantic, their failure to deal with the Vance-Owen plan is almost more worrying than if they had a specific reason for not endorsing it."

The 12-member European Community has approved the Vance-Owen plan, which also has the support of Russia, even though the negotiators acknowledge that it may take up to three times as many troops as the more than 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers now engaged in the former Yugoslav republics to police the boundaries of the 10 proposed Bosnian provinces.

The American failure to endorse the plan threatens to disturb Washington's relations with Britain and European allies, who consider the plan imperfect--but the best that could be cobbled together after months of arduous negotiations.

Further, the Administration's delay is seen in Europe as serving to increase the reluctance of Bosnian Muslims to go along with any plan that would give Serbian ethnic groups a part of the republic.

The United States frequently complains, with good reason, that members of the European Community long ago should have led the way in dealing with fragmented Yugoslavia, by intervening militarily if necessary.

The Europeans counter that there are good reasons for them to shy away from sending the troops.

"Our armed forces are already stretched," British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said recently. "We cannot be everywhere and we cannot do everything. To impose and guarantee order in the former Yugoslavia would take huge forces and huge risks over an indefinite period--which no democracy could justify to its people."

As Hurd points out, Britain currently deploys more than 80,000 troops abroad, including those in Germany and Northern Ireland, and therefore would be hard-pressed to find additional troops to police the Vance-Owen plan.

Currently, the British have 2,600 troops in U.N. contingents in the former Yugoslav republics, France has nearly 5,000 and seven other EC members have units attached to the United Nations.

Among those European nations, France has seemed to be most active in supporting the Muslim position in Bosnia, though in recent weeks the ardor in Paris for intervention has appeared to cool.

"France will not go into former Yugoslavia as some have demanded, with its army, risking the lives of its soldiers, in a purely French military adventure, or anything like that," President Francois Mitterrand said last month. "I don't want France isolated outside the United Nations, launching a military action."

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