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Clinton Faces Tough Decision on Bosnia

Balkans: He must withdraw troops and put peace at risk, or renew U.S. commitment and face criticism at home.

November 05, 1996|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As President Clinton concludes his campaign with a series of high-profile appearances, his foreign policy advisors are quietly preparing for one of the most controversial decisions of his presidency: the next step in Bosnia.

Win or lose, it is a decision he must make within weeks.

While Clinton has managed to push beyond today the touchy issue of whether to extend the presence of U.S. troops in the Balkans, even with the election behind him the decision will not be easy. And if he is reelected, the two options he faces will be extremely uncomfortable.

Will he keep the promise he made to Congress and the American public in December and end U.S. military involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the current peacekeeping mandate runs out Dec. 20? If he chooses that course, he risks throwing away the progress made toward peace and cedes the United States' role in the Balkans.

Or will he keep U.S. troops in the region to consolidate the shaky peace? That choice would probably lead to another public assault on his credibility and a major run-in with a Congress whose support he needs for a successful second term.

"There's the question of whether he can credibly go to Congress for [funding of] other kinds of international peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions if he's seen as not keeping his word here," summed up one White House official.

For that reason, the official said, U.S. involvement in a Bosnia "follow-on" force, which would replace the current peacekeepers, is not "a done deal."

Even if the voters make him a lame duck today, freeing him from long-term political considerations, any attempt to extend the U.S. troop commitment in the Balkans would be a tough sell.

"It's going to be a very difficult time," predicted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of the way Clinton has handled the deployment in Bosnia. "There's great resentment and skepticism."

Events, however, are pushing the president to break his word.

Although ordering an end to U.S. participation in the NATO-led multinational peace Implementation Force, known as IFOR, would avoid problems domestically, such a move would be little short of reckless, say those familiar with the situation.

A U.S. military pullout now, these sources say, would endanger the hard-won, fragile stability in Bosnia in which the United States has invested so much.

It also would risk a major rift with U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and probably start unraveling the international effort to keep peace in the region.

Britain, France and other nations with large troop commitments to IFOR have said they will quit if the United States pulls out.

"It would be irresponsible," said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, the principal architect of the peace that has taken hold thanks mainly to the presence of IFOR.

Holbrooke's successor, John Kornblum, agreed.

"We're still at a point where international support is necessary" to make the peace effort successful, he told a group of correspondents here last week.

At least through today's U.S. elections, the administration has seemed determined to stick by its semantic defense.

In response to questions about the future of U.S. forces in the Balkans, senior administration officials have said only that IFOR's mandate will end as scheduled Dec. 20, exactly one year after it began. There is no talk of renaming or reshaping the mission, they insist, and all that comes after that date remains speculative.

In fact, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee last month that even without an extension of the U.S. military presence, it would be mid-March before the last IFOR-assigned U.S. troops are out of the region.

Further, White House officials now say that a contingent of 5,000 U.S. troops dispatched early last month to Bosnia as part of a cover force to guard the impending withdrawal of IFOR units was told before its departure that it might be ordered to stay beyond March.

The force has been "given warnings that it's not impossible that once the IFOR pullout is complete, it could be given a follow-on mission, if there is one," one official said.

Britain was so certain of a continued U.S. presence that it recently deployed a new brigade of 5,000 troops for a six-month tour of duty.

"That we're putting a fresh brigade out there now would seem to make its own point," British army spokesman John Beer said.

With timing that could not be more convenient for Clinton's reelection chances, military planners at NATO headquarters in Brussels are scheduled to present their requirements for a post-IFOR force to their political masters Wednesday.

According to alliance sources, planners have studied troop and equipment needs for four political options, including two highly unlikely extremes: continuation of the current IFOR mandate with a similar-size force of 52,000 troops or, conversely, a complete military pullout.

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