WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders meeting with President Clinton at his request gave him a green light Tuesday for continuing some U.S. military role in Bosnia past next June's promised deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Clinton summoned members of Congress to the White House to give them a report on the progress made and problems remaining in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where about 8,000 U.S. troops are now stationed, and the outlook for the military mission.
While saying that he had not decided to extend the U.S. troop presence, he argued that the United States has a compelling interest in ensuring that the war in the former Yugoslav federation does not resume, according to those present.
Both Democrats and Republicans concurred.
"There was not one voice of dissent," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), one of those present, said after the session.
Even though many members wish that the U.S. mission in Bosnia was over, they fear the consequences of withdrawing U.S. troops in the near future.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 6, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 3 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Bosnia meeting--Because of an editing error, a quotation was garbled in a story in Wednesday's editions of The Times about a White House meeting on Bosnia policy. The quote should have read: "What we heard tonight [from members of Congress] was that in some form or another maintaining the momentum of the Dayton [peace] accord was essential, that it would probably require some type of military involvement and that in some form the United States should participate," said James Steinberg, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs.
"It's very clear, if the United States pulls out, these people will be back at their throats again and we will have lost an $8-billion investment," Warner said.
Views varied about the ideal size and mandate of any future U.S. military contingent. Some members indicated that the U.S. role should become more limited and that an eventual phaseout is still necessary.
"It is very important for America to keep its word," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). "We said we would leave next June. I think we should do it. But many of us would support a different kind of mission."
Although Clinton has announced no plan for U.S. involvement in Bosnia beyond the scheduled end of the military mission in June, administration officials recently have been hinting that there will still be a need for U.S. troops in the larger multinational security force.
Allied governments have indicated that they will pull out troops if the United States does. And they, along with many U.S. policy experts, have warned of renewed violence among Serbs, Muslims and Croats in the region.
Even though extending the U.S. mission would involve fudging yet another deadline in the 2-year-old U.S. deployment, congressional criticism has been eased somewhat by a lack of American casualties.
"What we heard tonight [from Clinton] was that in some form or another maintaining the momentum of the Dayton [peace] accord was essential, that it would probably require some type of military involvement and that in some form the United States should participate," said James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor. "There was broad consensus on that."
Three dozen members of Congress attended the two-hour session, including key committee chairpersons and most of the leadership of both parties from the House and Senate.
The administration hopes to work out its Bosnia policy this winter, and the president wanted the input of congressional leaders before they recess for the year, Steinberg said. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been coordinating the multinational peacekeeping force in Bosnia, will discuss future security arrangements during ministerial meetings early next month.
"We know that sometime this winter, we and our allies will have to come to a decision, and we need to collectively be ready," he said.
Top administration national security experts have concluded that a significant U.S. troop presence will be needed for the foreseeable future, said a senior U.S. official. Administration officials were encouraged by the tone of Tuesday's meeting and believe that it will help them avoid another contentious struggle with Congress over Bosnia policy.
"What was striking to most of us was that the members of Congress were very open-minded--there was an explicitly expressed interest in working with the president and hearing what he ultimately decides," Steinberg said.
Several members of Congress said they expect no confrontation over the issue.
"Republicans and Democrats alike have indicated they want to work with the president to construct a strategy that would take us beyond June," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said.
The current U.S. deployment replaced a larger contingent--more than 20,000 American troops at its peak--sent to Bosnia after the peace accords were negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. The troops have focused on providing security while political and diplomatic leaders press to reconstruct a Bosnian civil government.
Proposals over a future multinational force have varied, but some projections have estimated a U.S. role would involve about 5,000 American troops.
During Tuesday's meeting, there was surprisingly little acrimony about U.S. troops remaining abroad in a dangerous environment, participants said. There was some discussion about whether it was a good idea to set troop withdrawal deadlines at all, according to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
Bosnia specialists said it is becoming increasingly obvious that the risk of leaving Bosnia would be too great because the peace remains too fragile.
"We've claimed our restored role in the world through our success in Bosnia, so we cannot back out now," said Susan Woodward, a Bosnia specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "The analytical assessments are very clear [that] a withdrawal in June '98 is too soon. That is to say that a war will resume if troops are not there."