WASHINGTON -- As the United States prepares to forge an international coalition for new military pressure in the Balkans, European allies, swallowing hard, are reconsidering previously ruled-out measures, including the arming of Bosnia's Muslims.
For months, Britain and France viewed the lifting of the arms embargo on the outgunned Muslims as probably the worst of the military options being considered by the United States. They were joined by other European countries and Canada, which, like Britain and France, has has peacekeeping forces in Bosnia.
But under mounting U.S. pressure and upon seeing the repeated failure of diplomacy and sanctions to halt Serbian aggression, Europeans now stress that they are ruling nothing out and are searching for ways to make even this option workable, diplomats said yesterday. They have already become less opposed to the idea of air strikes on Serbian positions.
A British official described as essentially correct a statement made yesterday by White House communications director George Stephanopoulos that allied opposition to lifting the arms embargo was easing.
"The objections [in Europe] have not gone away," the official said, but he added that Europeans would "try to minimize those downsides and objections and look forward to sitting down and talking about" all the options President Clinton is considering.
The softening came as Mr. Clinton prepared for a final meeting with his key advisers today before deciding what military options to pursue in the Balkans and dispatching Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to European capitals and Moscow to forge a consensus.
In New Orleans, Mr. Clinton said yesterday that, after today's meeting, "I may want to make another round of phone calls" and "I expect then we'll be pretty close to deciding where we are. I want to get an updated report on the situation and I'll ask a lot of questions about it."
The president's meetings in Washington will coincide with theUnited Nations-sponsored negotiations in Athens, where a new attempt will be made to get Bosnia's Serbs to agree to a peace plan mediated by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen and agreed to by Bosnia's Muslims and Croats. Mr. Clinton has dispatched special envoy Reginald Bartholemew to the session, but U.S. and allied officials voiced skepticism that signs of the new Serbian flexibility are real and lasting, especially on the part of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Fred Eckhard, the U.N. spokesman for Mr. Vance and Lord Owen, seemed to acknowledge as much yesterday when he told reporters: "It would not be prudent to predict we are just going to waltz into the signature and go into an implementation phase this weekend."
Mr. Christopher's trip, a senior U.S. official said, is intended "to see ifthere is an agreed-upon, effective set of multilateral measures that will stop the fighting and bring a negotiated solution."
When U.S. interest in military action was ambivalent at best, European objections were sufficient to doom it. But now that Mr. Clinton is intent on a stronger policy, Europeans are preparing to fall behind U.S. leadership, provided they are thoroughly consulted in advance.
For the United States, arming the Muslims would supplement allied air power in shifting the military balance in Bosnia, where Serbs have been able to draw on the heavy weapons of the former Yugoslavia.
Vice President Al Gore, who has been described as one of the strongest advocates within the Clinton administration of lifting the U.N.-imposed embargo on the Muslims, said yesterday that the embargo had worked to the advantage of the Serbs.
"The international community is, in a sense, already taking sides in this conflict, because one side, the [Serbs], have all the weapons that they need. They inherited the Communist army in the former Yugoslavia, and they have all the tanks and heavy artillery and ammunition, and the international community is using military force in the form of an embargo to actively prevent the Bosnian Muslims from defending themselves," he said.
Mr. Christopher has described the embargo in similar terms, but has also pointed up some of the downsides of lifting it. One, he mentioned in congressional testimony, is that it could free Iran to supply arms to the Muslims, and thus strengthen that pariah state's hand in Europe.
Europeans and Canadians have said that arming the Bosnian Muslims would increase the bloodshed and make humanitarian assistance impossible. Opponents of the move have noted that in anticipation of facing a stronger enemy, the Serbs would escalate their offensive.
British, French and Canadian diplomats reiterated their countries' objections yesterday but also stressed that they did not want to close the door on anything.
Lifting the embargo would require a new U.N. Security Council resolution and could still be blocked by Russia, which has longtime ties to the Serbs.