WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Friday vetoed legislation requiring the United States to defy the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia-Herzegovina, arguing that the politically popular measure would backfire by increasing atrocities, torpedoing diplomacy and ultimately converting the complex ethnic war into "an American responsibility."
The President waited to exercise his long-threatened veto until the Senate was ready to follow the House into summer recess, guaranteeing that Congress will not get a chance to overturn his decision until after Labor Day.
Although both the Senate and House passed the measure by more than the two-thirds majority required to override the veto, the White House expressed confidence that enough votes will be changed as a result of diplomatic activity and a somewhat more muscular approach by U.N. peacekeepers to allow the President to prevail in at least one of the chambers.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he believes he now has the votes in the Senate to sustain the veto, although "all bets are off" if the Bosnian Serbs launch another offensive before the matter comes up next month.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the primary sponsor of the bill, seemed to agree. Asked about Daschle's assessment, Dole said, "If it happened today, he might be right." But he said the veto will be easily overridden if more Serbian atrocities are uncovered.
But in a three-page statement announcing his veto, Clinton said that lifting the embargo would worsen the desperate plight of Bosnian civilians. "The Serbs will not delay their assaults while the Bosnian government receives new arms and training," he said.
Clinton acknowledged that the legislation, billed by its sponsors as a way to give the Muslim-led but secular Bosnian government the tools to defend itself, is extremely popular, especially in the face of evidence of genocide and other war crimes by Bosnian Serb insurgents. But he asserted that the measure "will have the opposite effects of what its supporters intend."
"It would intensify the fighting, jeopardize diplomacy and make the outcome of the war in Bosnia an American responsibility," Clinton said. He called the bill "the wrong step [at] the wrong time."
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the President believes that events in the three weeks that Congress will be out of session will buttress the Administration's position.
He noted that the Bosnian Serbs pulled back from a threatened assault on the U.N.-designated "safe area" of Gorazde as soon as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization vowed to use air power to defend the beleaguered Muslim enclave. And he said a new round of diplomatic activity may bear fruit by Labor Day.
National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff are in Europe trying to line up support for a refurbished drive for peace in the Balkans. U.S. officials hope that the mauling that Croatian Serb separatists recently suffered in the Krajina region of Croatia will make their ethnic allies in Bosnia more receptive to a negotiated solution.
Lake and Tarnoff already have met with top officials in London, Bonn and Paris. They are scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev on Sunday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Russia and the United States have sharp differences over the Balkans, with Moscow condemning the congressional legislation to defy the arms embargo against the Bosnian government. At the same time, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is pressing for an end to U.N. sanctions against Serbia and has suggested that Russia might defy them if the United Nations does not move quickly.
On Friday, Yeltsin ordered major shipments of humanitarian aid sent to Serbia, starting with three planeloads of food and medicine, which Russian officials said were legal under the sanctions.
McCurry said Washington will exert pressure to stop Moscow from violating the sanctions against Serbia. But U.S. officials said the House and Senate vote to defy the arms embargo against Bosnia detracts from the force of the U.S. argument on the sanctions issue.
The action in Congress was propelled by growing anger over Bosnian Serb atrocities such as mass murders, rape and looting intended to drive Muslims and Croats out of towns claimed by the Serbs.
The Bosnian government may have forfeited some of the moral high ground when its troops joined Croatian government forces in driving Serbs out of the Krajina.
On Friday, U.N. peacekeepers and journalists reported that Serbian civilians fleeing or trapped in Croatia are being killed and their homes destroyed. Danish peacekeepers in Dvor, southeast of the Croatian capital of Zagreb, reported seeing unidentified soldiers killing refugees in a schoolyard Thursday, and an Associated Press television crew saw evidence of an attack against a column of refugees near the same town Friday.