WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday proposed far broader use of allied air power in Bosnia-Herzegovina and put Bosnian Serbs on notice that the United States is prepared to lead Western military forces to punish their "brutal" behavior and thwart their territorial ambitions.
Clinton in effect is attempting to commit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deepening its involvement in the Balkan civil war as a force in support of the tormented Bosnian Muslims and to deny Bosnian Serbs victory in areas they consider crucial to the goal of creating a Greater Serbia.
But it was far from clear whether he can persuade Moscow, European allies, Congress and even his own Defense Department to accept this escalation of the Western role in the former Yugoslav federation.
NATO officials in Brussels tentatively agreed Wednesday to the expanded use of air power in Bosnia, but they cautioned that the alliance would want greater flexibility in how force is employed and unambiguous command of NATO aircraft in the theater, sources said.
Despite that initial favorable reaction, officials in Brussels said difficult military questions must be addressed before alliance leaders will formally endorse the Clinton proposal. Among the issues to be resolved are the safety of peacekeepers on the ground and expanded definitions of potential targets.
Clinton coupled his threats to punish Bosnian Serb forces for their latest attacks on civilians in the Muslim enclave of Gorazde with promises of renewed international diplomatic efforts to bring the Serbs to the bargaining table.
"Let me be clear about our objective," the President said at a late afternoon news conference at the White House. "Working with our allies, the Russians and others, we must help the warring parties in Bosnia to reach a negotiated settlement. To do that, we must make the Serbs pay a higher price for continued violence so it will be in their own interest more clearly to return to the negotiating table."
He characterized the Bosnian Serbs as the primary aggressors in the 2-year-old Balkan conflict and called their attacks on a hospital, the U.N. headquarters and other defenseless targets in Gorazde "terribly wrong."
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, responding to Clinton's proposal, said that more NATO air power used in defense of Muslim enclaves will only prolong the war.
"Now we are having more and more threats," Karadzic said in an interview broadcast on the Cable News Network. "We are having more and more sanctions. And the Muslim side (is) nothing but encouraged to go on with the war. They do not have any motivation to stop the war."
He said that NATO and the United Nations are prosecuting a war against the Serbian people. "We can't stop war only by pressuring the Serbian side," he complained.
But as Clinton turned up the volume of rhetoric against the Bosnian Serbs, he acknowledged what his military advisers have been telling him for months--that air power alone will not end the war in Bosnia or even drive the rebel Serbs to the peace table.
Clinton said he had presented his plan earlier Wednesday to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, whom Clinton described as "quite sympathetic" to applying greater pressure on the Serbs. But the Russian leader warned Clinton that outside force cannot settle the Balkan problem and that he will not commit Russian support to the new plan until he has seen it in writing.
Clinton said he had also described the proposal to French President Francois Mitterrand and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien; he characterized them as generally supportive. He said he was still attempting to reach British Prime Minister John Major and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Clinton left vague the tactical dimensions of the plan, saying he wanted to discuss it in private with allied leaders before describing it in detail to the public. But in broad terms, he is proposing to expand the weapons-exclusion zone declared around Sarajevo in February to the five other safe areas for Muslims in Bosnia--Gorazde, Srebrenica, Zepa, Tuzla and Bihac.
Under the U.S. proposal, shelling of those towns or any movement of weapons within a specified radius of the city center would bring quick retaliatory air strikes.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry, speaking to reporters during a visit to South Korea, said today that the Clinton plan would allow NATO planes to bomb Bosnian Serb ammunition dumps, supply depots and command posts inside the exclusion zones--not just artillery, as is the case in Sarajevo.
Clinton also said Wednesday that he supports an expansion of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, which numbers roughly 15,000 troops from 12 countries. The United Nations has authorized 3,500 more peacekeepers for Bosnia; the commander on the ground, British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, wants 6,500 more.
Clinton's decision to push for extended NATO air strikes drew immediate fire from Republicans on Capitol Hill.