WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Warren Christopher ha backed away from the belief that a moral imperative dictates the need for military action in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Instead, Mr. Christopher insists that no side in the bloody ethnic war can properly claim to be a victim of genocide because all are guilty of atrocities.
Although Mr. Christopher told the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that the Clinton administration will continue to advocate supplying weapons to the Muslim-led Bosnian government combined with air strikes on Serb military positions, he acknowledged he has been unable to get allied support for the plan and reiterated that the United States will not act alone.
But when Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y., asserted that "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia is a moral issue that must be addressed by the United States regardless of the attitude of other countries, Mr. Christopher replied: "There are atrocities on all sides."
As he has in the past, Mr. Christopher said the Serbs -- the largest and most powerful party in the conflict -- are the worst offenders, having committed systematic rape and other forms of brutality against civilians. But the Muslims and Croats are guilty of similar kinds of war crimes, a fact that blurs the moral issue.
Mr. Christopher's remarks may be intended to prepare the way for the administration to avoid direct intervention in Bosnia, despite President Clinton's argument during the fall campaign that the world has a moral obligation to stop Serbian atrocities.
By toning down the emotional content of the debate, the administration sought to recast the issue as conventional diplomacy in which the United States must weigh the pluses and minuses of becoming more deeply involved.
Officials clearly were concerned that if the public comes to equate the Serbs' actions in the Balkan conflict with the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II -- a parallel some participants in the debate have tried to draw -- the administration might be forced to act, even if it could not develop a broad international consensus.
"It's somewhat different than the Holocaust," Mr. Christopher said. "It's been easy to analogize this to the Holocaust, but I never heard of any genocide by the Jews against the German people."
Other lawmakers, including Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., objected that Mr. Christopher was applying a doctrine of "moral equivalence," diluting the moral issue and undercutting the administration's effort to obtain the support of foreign governments or U.S. public opinion behind its Bosnia policy.
"In point of fact, the Jewish population . . . at the Warsaw Ghetto did try to fight back, so that does not take away the argument that it was genocide," Mr. Royce said. "You know, genocide is genocide."
Mr. Christopher said he will meet in Washington with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei A. Kozyrev tomorrow and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe Monday and will talk with other foreign ministers by telephone in search of an international consensus. But he said the differences are profound.
"The best way to increase the pressure on the Bosnian Serbs and ultimately contain the conflict is to lift the present arms embargo, coupled with a stand-by authority for [use of allied] air power," Mr. Christopher told the lawmakers. "As you know, our allies and friends in Europe are not prepared to follow this course at the present time."
Mr. Christopher rejected a proposal by Mr. Kozyrev for the U.N. Security Council to impose, by military force if necessary, the U.N.-mediated peace plan that has been accepted by the Muslims and Croats but overwhelmingly rejected by the Serbs.
Russia has postponed its attempt to convene the Security Council on Friday to discuss the war in Bosnia.
"Frankly, I'm quite surprised by the position taken by Foreign Minister Kozyrev now that we should try to do what he calls a progressive implementation of the [international peace] plan after it was turned down overwhelmingly by the Bosnian Serbs," Mr. Christopher said. "That can only mean that he would like to try to enforce the plan over the will of the parties, and we've never been willing to do that."
"My feeling is that before we go to a formal Security Council meeting, there needs to be careful bilateral discussions so we can concert our interests," he said.
"If you're trying to have a peace plan that one of the three parties . . . is in firm and explicit disagreement with, then . . . the only way you could enforce it against the Bosnian Serbs would be with troops on the ground," he said.
"You certainly can't enforce something as complex as the Vance-Owen plan with air power. And the United States is not prepared to use its military forces to try to compel the parties to agree to a plan."