WASHINGTON — In a potentially significant shift, President Clinton edged away Friday from his earlier blanket refusal to send U.S. ground troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina, saying instead only that he wants to avoid sending troops into combat "in behalf of one of the sides."
At a White House news conference, Clinton emphasized that he has not decided to put any American forces in the former Yugoslav republic and said he will not send troops into combat there. But for the first time in his public statements on the Balkan crisis, he did not rule out any use of ground troops in noncombat roles while the war is still on.
Until this week, Clinton and other officials said they were not even considering any use of ground troops unless the warring factions first stop fighting, sign a peace plan and ask the United States to send peacekeepers.
"The rhetoric is a little different, because the conditions have changed," an aide said. "We're not particularly interested in that (sending troops to Bosnia), but we have had to take a look at it."
A senior official said Clinton remains "very reluctant" to send any forces to the area.
"We're not going to send ground troops into a hostile combat situation," he said. Clinton has specifically ruled out sending U.S. troops to help guard proposed "safe havens" for Bosnian civilians under attack by Serbian forces, he added.
Nor does Clinton appear interested in sending troops to patrol the border between Bosnia and Serbia to monitor an embargo against supplies for Serbian forces in Bosnia, the aides said. "I couldn't rule it out, but that's mostly because we haven't seriously considered it," a senior official said.
Asked about the idea at his news conference, Clinton said only that no one had asked the United States to join the proposed U.N. border patrol.
However, Clinton does appear headed toward a decision to send troops to Macedonia, the only former Yugoslav republic that has not yet been touched by war, aides said. "We can do Macedonia," said one. "The Europeans can do Bosnia."
One official said Clinton remains reluctant to commit ground forces to any duty in the former Yugoslav republics, in part because of a fear that American troops would "make good targets for terrorists."
France, Britain, Spain and Canada have ground troops in Bosnia delivering humanitarian aid and helping civilians escape from combat zones under U.N. command. All the foreign detachments have come under fire from the local forces fighting for territory on behalf of the republic's three ethnic-religious groups: the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.
"I do not believe the United States has any business sending troops there to get involved in a conflict in behalf of one of the sides," the President said at his news conference.
But he decided to soften his earlier, blanket rejection of sending ground troops to the area for several reasons, one official said.
First, if he does decide to send troops to Macedonia, he does not want to appear to have switched positions abruptly.
Second, Britain and France have both suggested that the United States should send troops to join their humanitarian aid forces, and Clinton does not want to appear to dismiss the idea out of hand.
Third, Clinton is still considering the option of U.S. air strikes against Serbian military positions in Bosnia--and senior military officials have told him that the strikes would be far more effective if U.S. commandos were landed on the ground to help locate targets.
At his news conference, Clinton said he still hopes to persuade Britain, France and other allied countries to support his proposal to arm the Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serb militias--the same plan they rejected last week, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to European capitals to present it.
"I believe that we should continue to turn up the pressure and, as you know, I have taken the position that the best way to do that would be to lift the arms embargo with a standby authority of air power," Clinton said. " . . . That position is still on the table; it has not been rejected out of hand."
He repeated that he would not act without the allies' agreement.
"I think that the United States must act with our allies, especially because Bosnia is in the heart of Europe and the Europeans are there," Clinton said.
In the next few weeks, a senior official said, the Administration intends to "go back to the Europeans" once it is clear that the actions taken so far have not stopped the war and ask them again to agree to lifting the arms embargo.
Some Europeans have suggested launching air strikes against the Serbs without lifting the embargo, but Clinton "has been very uncomfortable with that," the official said. "If we commit American power, including air power, we better know what the objective is."
As an interim measure, Clinton endorsed the idea of a U.N. border patrol to monitor the border between Serbia and Bosnia--and thus put pressure on Serbia to enforce a promised blockade on supplies for the Bosnian Serb militias.
"That is a very good next step," he said.