WASHINGTON — Criticism of United Nations conduct in Bosnia-Herzegovina mounted on Capitol Hill on Thursday as congressional leaders elicited growing support for a resolution to end the arms embargo against the Muslim-led but secular Bosnian government.
"The U.N. forces must withdraw and the arms embargo must be lifted," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said in a speech on the Senate floor.
The notion that U.N. peacekeepers can be redeployed to safer areas merely amounts to "redefining . . . [the] colossal failure" that their mission has become, Dole added.
"Now we are faced with a widening catastrophe, but there is no longer any attempt to save the Bosnians . . . only to save face," he said.
His criticism was echoed even more harshly by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who compared the West's indecision over Bosnia-Herzegovina to its appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. "The U.N. acts totally impotently and undermines the morale of every law-abiding democracy on the planet," Gingrich told reporters. "This is the worst performance by the democracies since the 1930s."
The GOP leadership's view was widely shared--not only by Republicans but by Democrats in both the House and Senate--and GOP sources predicted that the issue would come to a head by the middle of next week, when Dole intends to offer a resolution mandating an end to the arms embargo. GOP sources were confident that the resolution will pass by a significant margin.
The House has already voted--by a veto-proof margin of 318 to 99--to order a lifting of the embargo, but would have to take up the measure again because its first resolution was attached to a foreign aid authorization bill that is not expected to survive a veto by President Clinton.
Despite the U.N. debacle in Srebrenica, which fell to Bosnian Serb forces this week after U.N. Protection Force troops were forced to withdraw, both the State Department and the Pentagon said it remains U.S. policy to keep the U.N. troops in Bosnia as long as the countries with forces on the ground are willing to stay.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the "central mission" of the U.N. force is to provide humanitarian relief, a job it can still perform even though it was unable to defend Srebrenica.
"If [the U.N. force] is not in the field and future tragedies like the one in Srebrenica occur--and they surely will--who will take care of the refugees?" Burns asked.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said, "Obviously what happened over the last few days in Srebrenica hurt the integrity of the U.N. forces, [but] do not confuse the fall of Srebrenica with the collapse of the overall mission."
Clinton, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he continues to believe that the United States should not move unilaterally to end the arms embargo, which critics say harms the generally less well-armed Bosnian government and helps the Bosnian Serbs, who inherited many of the resources of the former federal Yugoslav army.
"I still do not believe that it is in the interest of the United States to collapse and force the Europeans out of their willingness to put ground troops on the ground in Bosnia, to try to minimize the loss of life and limit the spread," Clinton said.
"If the United Nations mission does collapse, then I believe that together the allies should all vote on the arms embargo," the President said. "That is the best way to keep the NATO position unified, to keep the world position unified, and to avoid overly Americanizing the dealings in Bosnia should the U.N. mission collapse."
The Administration has an added reason for encouraging the 22,500-member U.N. force to remain in Bosnia. If the U.N. soldiers have to be removed, the United States has agreed to provide 25,000 troops to help get them out, exposing U.S. forces to possible ground combat for the first time in the Bosnia war.
Bacon said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization now estimates that it would take 70,000 to 80,000 NATO troops to assure the rescue of the U.N. force. Earlier estimates had put the number at 60,000. But Bacon said the level of American participation was unchanged.
Bacon said the new French-British-Dutch rapid-reaction force should be ready by early next month, adding needed military muscle to the U.N. contingent.
The Senate resolution requires an end to the embargo after the departure of the peacekeepers or within 12 weeks after the Bosnian government requests their withdrawal. But in its current form, the measure is silent on the questions of whether the United States should begin supplying arms to the Bosnians, how the weaponry might be delivered and what role, if any, American advisers should play in training the Bosnians to use the arms.
But Dole, in his speech Thursday, repeated the four conditions under which he has said Congress will support use of American troops to evacuate the peacekeepers. The withdrawal, he said, must be under NATO, not U.N., command; have "robust" rules of engagement guaranteeing "massive retaliation" against the Bosnian Serbs if they attack U.S. forces; not risk American lives unnecessarily by evacuating the U.N. force's heavy weapons, and be followed by an allied agreement to end the arms embargo.
U.S. officials fear that lifting the embargo unilaterally would make the United States solely responsible for the Bosnian Muslims and the slaughter that could ensue if the Serbs use captured U.N. weapons to step up their offensives.
But such concerns have been all but overtaken in recent weeks by congressional calls for effective action in Bosnia. "The Bosnians would certainly defend themselves better than the United Nations has defended them," Gingrich said.