WASHINGTON -- President Clinton decided yesterday to tak military action with U.S. allies against Bosnian Serbs, who are considered the main aggressors in a war that has left tens of thousands dead.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who left last night to develop strategy with European and Russian leaders, warned the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina that the "clock is ticking" unless they take immediate action toward peace.
The decision deeply embroiled Mr. Clinton and the United States for the first time in a war that was under way for nine months before Mr. Clinton took office and is rooted in centuries of ethnic turmoil in the Balkans, a flash point for previous conflicts, including World War I.
In arriving at a military plan, Mr. Clinton launched a strategy similar to the one adopted by former President George Bush in the Persian Gulf crisis of working to build a U.S.-led coalition.
This means European allies will hear the plans before the administration tells the American public, already divided and wary about military intervention in the Balkans.
"The president has just completed a meeting with his principal national security advisers. At this meeting the president decided on the direction that he believes the United States and the international community should now take in this situation. This direction involves a number of specific recommendations, including military steps," Mr. Christopher said.
The meeting had explored the additional actions with an aim to "respond to the violence, stop the aggression and contain the conflict," he said.
The Bosnian Serbs have waged a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," hoping to link up with Serbia, the dominant state left in Yugoslavia. The yearlong ethnic war, which began after Bosnia's Muslims and Croats seceded from Yugoslavia, has left more than 130,000 people dead or missing in the most savage fighting in Europe since World War II.
Mr. Christopher, briefing reporters at the White House, refused to discuss specifics of military plans, widely believed to include air strikes against Serbian supply lines and positions and a lifting of the arms embargo that has kept Bosnian Muslims outgunned.
The secretary said Mr. Clinton had ruled out deploying "large numbers" of U.S. ground troops except to enforce terms of an agreement freely arrived at by Muslims, Croats and Serbs in former Yugoslav republics.
The final four-hour meeting yesterday climaxed more than two weeks of intense debate within the administration and on Capitol Hill about a new course of action in the Balkans to replace a failed U.S.-backed diplomatic strategy.
Mr. Clinton faced strong pressures to act militarily against Serbian aggression and equally forceful arguments that in doing so the United States would get drawn into a quagmire.
His decision came as the parties to the Bosnian conflict met yesterday in Athens, Greece, in a renewed bid to reach agreement on a peace plan mediated by Lord Owen of the European Community and former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, representing the United Nations.
Although Lord Owen said on arrival in Athens that peace was "within our grasp," Mr. Christopher warned sternly that merely reaching agreement was insufficient to deter the United States from its present course.
"They must do more than speak out; they must do more than just give us a signature on a peace plan," he said.
"Unfortunately, we've heard their words and seen their signatures before. It will take deeds, immediate, concrete actions on the ground by the Serbs. . . ."
Asked what the Serbs must do to avoid U.S. intervention, Mr. Christopher said pointedly that they "know well what actions they must take" and ticked off three of them:
* Adhering to U.N.-arranged cease-fires, which they keep agreeing to, but then ignore.
* Stopping the shelling of cities in Bosnia.
* Allowing humanitarian relief efforts to go on unimpeded.
Mr. Christopher set no deadline for such steps but said, "The Serbs know they have exhausted the patience of the international community."
"The clock is ticking," he said. "I think the Serbs know what they have to do. And they know that they need to do it promptly, because our course of decision is well set here."
Mr. Christopher said that "by no means do the allies have veto power" on the president's plans, "but this is a multilateral situation. . . . It's a situation where we want to take unified action with Europe." He said he had "some confidence that we can reach a situation of unity and cohesion."
A senior administration official, speaking anonymously, said yesterday that while the overall direction is set, the allies will be consulted on "different ways of configuring various options" and the "timetable."
Asked if he was going to Europe to "sell" the administration's plan to use military force or to seek European input, Mr. Christopher made it clear that it was the former. "I'm certainly going to try to persuade the allies [that Mr. Clinton's plan] is one they should embrace," he said.
The secretary is to meet with leaders of Britain, France, Russia and Germany, and officials of NATO and the European Community. He is to return at the end of this week.
On his first stop, in London, he will find "a very sympathetic foreign secretary who will want to hear an account" of Mr. Clinton's session with his top advisers yesterday, aiming to "develop and agree on a joint allied policy as soon as possible," a British official said.
Europeans have been fearful of foreign military intervention in Bosnia, believing it would trigger Serbian retaliation against U.N. troops and civilians. But they now are resigned to a U.S.-led use of force and want to "be there and play a part," the British official said.
The thousands of British, French and Canadian troops now helping move food and medicine as a U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia will have to be pulled back to safer areas, although both the United States and its allies "are very conscious of [the need for] keeping flows of aid going."
Asked what the United States' own self-interest might be in the Balkans conflict, Mr. Christopher cited the simple humanitarian urge to stop the ethnic-based slaughter of innocent civilians and the strategic interest in preventing the war from spreading. A spillover beyond Bosnia's borders could, U.S. officials fear, ignite a Balkan conflagration involving Albania, Turkey and Greece.
"The strategic interest of the United States . . . is to prevent a greater Balkans war," Mr. Christopher said.
In his brief White House remarks, Mr. Christopher did not address the standards he himself had said last week must be met before the United States committed itself to military action. These included a "strong likelihood" of success and an "exit strategy" to extricate the United States if success can't be achieved.
But the secretary had pressed internally, a senior administration official said yesterday, that "the options considered ought to be in support of a policy that has some view of the long-term future of the Balkans . . . a future in which people can coexist and live in peace."
Asked about the remarks of Lord Owen, who said Friday that, with hastily reconvened peace talks this weekend in Athens, the United States should wait before committing its military might against the Serbs, Mr. Christopher noted drily that he thought it was "not entirely a coincidence" that the Bosnian Serbs had agreed to reconsider a peace plan they had rejected only five days earlier at the same time that the Clinton administration had indicated it was ready for stronger action.
Mr. Clinton is pushing his new military direction against serious public misgivings.
A Newsweek poll Thursday and Friday found a 49 percent to 44 percent split against getting involved, and 60 percent opposition to use of U.S. ground forces. The poll of 750 adults has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, the Associated Press reported.
A Time-Cable News Network poll Wednesday and Thursday had 52 percent saying the United States already has done enough to stop the war, and the same percentage opposed to bombing Serbian forces. The Time poll of 1,000 adults, which has a 3-point margin of error, found 62 percent not sure whether they want the Bosnians or Serbs to win.