WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration has ordered the U.S. military to stop enforcing the United Nations arms embargo against Bosnia-Herzegovina, officials said Thursday--a largely symbolic action but one that has drawn private protests from U.S. allies in Europe.
Under the new policy, which goes into effect Saturday, U.S. Navy ships in the Adriatic Sea no longer will halt vessels that appear to be carrying weapons to Bosnia or Croatia but will continue to stop arms shipments bound for Serbia, which with Montenegro comprises the rump Yugoslavia, the officials said.
In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies will stop sharing information that they have collected with Britain, France, Italy and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that still are attempting to enforce the arms embargo against Bosnia, as called for by U.N. resolutions.
The decision, which officials stressed was made to comply with a law passed by Congress earlier this year, already has prompted sharp complaints from other NATO countries, which have thousands of troops on the ground in Bosnia.
"We have informed them of what we are doing . . . and we can't say that they are happy," a senior State Department official acknowledged.
The U.S. action falls short of a decision to break with the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia, however. And, indeed, the Administration will still obey the embargo in principle, while refusing to enforce it in practice.
American officials predicted that the action would have little practical effect on the flow of weapons into Bosnia or any other part of the former Yugoslav federation, which has been at war since the federation collapsed in 1991.
Most of Bosnia's weaponry has arrived overland or by air, and three years of naval embargo operations have had little effect, a senior Pentagon official said.
"Thousands of ships have been intercepted--tens of thousands--and only three have been found to contain arms for the Bosnian Muslims," he said.
Moreover, Administration officials expect the other NATO countries that have participated in the operation to continue enforcing the embargo against Bosnia--so that, while Bosnian arms smugglers need no longer fear the U.S. Navy, they will still have to look out for British and French ships.
"We will probably be switching positions," one official said, meaning that U.S. ships will concentrate on patrolling the coast of the rump Yugoslavia, while the Europeans focus on the Bosnian and Croatian coastlines.
U.S. officials said that the Administration is adopting the awkward new policy for one reason: Congress has required it by law. The Administration wants the United Nations to lift its arms embargo on Bosnia entirely, but Britain, France and other members of the U.N. Security Council--which decides such questions--have refused.
Meanwhile, Congress, impatient with such diplomatic niceties, had passed laws requiring the United States to stop enforcing the embargo by Saturday and to cut off all funding for the operation by Tuesday. "Basically, this is a matter of adhering to the law," a Pentagon official said.
"In the wider context of our policy on Bosnia, we don't have many options, and we have no good options," he added.
The basic U.S. aim is to pressure the Bosnian Serbs, who have seized about 70% of Bosnia's territory, to accept an internationally negotiated agreement that would leave them with 49%.
To achieve that, the Administration has been trying to escalate economic sanctions against both Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs and has tried to increase military pressure against the Bosnian Serbs with more frequent NATO airstrikes if they violate U.N. and NATO restrictions on military action.
"In a sense, this (decision) adds another element of pressure against the Bosnian Serbs," the Pentagon official said.
Officials were sensitive about the friction that the action has caused within NATO, however.
Until now, NATO had pointed to its enforcement of the arms embargo as a rare example of the old Cold War alliance finding a useful mission in the post-Cold War world.
Indeed, the joint embargo operation has been under the command of NATO's southern European operations, headed by U.S. Navy Adm. J. Leighton Smith Jr.
Officials said it was unclear whether the chain of command would have to be altered now that the United States is not taking part in some operations.
The U.S. refusal to share intelligence with its allies could be a particularly sore spot, some officials said. The Pentagon asked for and received approval for exceptions to be made in cases where sharing the intelligence would help protect either U.S. or NATO personnel from harm, one official said.
Britain, France and other countries with peacekeeping troops on the ground in Bosnia have long complained that the United States--with no troops there--pays little attention to the impact of its policies on their safety.
"They have a point," one U.S. official said. "This action is likely to increase the risks to U.N. forces in Bosnia."
Times staff writer Jim Mann in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.