Attempts to Agree on Bosnia Strategy Hit Snags


Washington. -- The latest international plan for trying to wind down the fighting in Bosnia hit major snags last week and failed to win immediate approval of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers meeting in Brussels. NATO forces would be all-important in carrying out the plan.

Cobbled together by U.S. and European diplomats in Washington a week ago, the formula calls for creating militarily protected safety zones for Muslims in Bosnia and, it is hoped, limiting the carnage.

For the Clinton administration, this represents a reversal of direction from its proposals to supply arms to the Muslims and use air power against their Serbian attackers. Europeans would agree to neither, contending that the U.S. proposals would prolong and widen the war and put United Nations forces on the ground in Bosnia at risk of Serbian retaliation for air attacks.

President Clinton's promise of a tougher Bosnian policy with military options thus gave way to a basically European-Russian concept relying heavily on a controversial safe-haven plan and greater economic pressure on Serbia.

The scheme was under attack at the United Nations on grounds that it would create Muslim ghettoes without protected access to the outside and would not commit to pushing the Bosnian Serbs out of territory seized during 13 months of conflict. That being the case, a favorable U.N. Security Council vote on resolutions prescribing ways to carry out the plan and defend the Muslims was in doubt. Such resolutions would be needed to invoke action by NATO, whose military command has been working for months on a variety of steps that conceivably could ** be ordered.

The safe-areas plan was devised by the foreign ministers of the ** United States, Britain, France, Spain and Russia. It seemed replete with generalities and ambiguities, and by mid-week the NATO defense ministers were raising tough questions.

"They acted like it was somebody else's plan," observed Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Brookings Institution scholar and former State Department official. He noted that the United States, Britain, France and Spain were, after all, members of NATO as well as authors of the plan. Some of their allies were more than a bit miffed at not being consulted, considering the work NATO had done on Bosnian planning.

Mr. Sonnenfeldt pointed out that the United States had said it would not contribute to the thousands of ground troops that would be required to defend the safe havens, but would provide air power to defend other troops if they came under Serbian attack.

That was a lesser role for air power than previously proposed. Whereas the Clinton administration had been ready to order carefully planned air strikes against Bosnian Serb artillery and supply lines, the plan now called only for air defense of the ground troops, if they were attacked. But in some observers' judgment, this commitment to defend the ground force could eventually draw the United States into the conflict anyway.

With questions on their minds about who would be defending whom and what might trigger air and ground action, the defense ministers did not agree on backing the safety zone plan but simply said they had discussed it.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin meanwhile asserted after the meeting, according to news accounts from Brussels, that military options were still on the front burner as far as the United States was concerned. The Washington Post quoted him: "Nothing has been taken off of the table, and in particular the more robust military options that the Clinton administration was advocating have not been rejected."

If not rejected, they are certainly being widely resisted -- in Europe, in Congress and in military ranks.

In fact, one of the casualties in the present circumstances is an Aspin idea about limited use of force in the post-Cold War era, not necessarily to win but just to punish aggressors like, say, Bosnian Serbs, and then back off.

This, spelled out before he became defense secretary, was to be the Aspin answer to those who, like then-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, kept asking what the United States would do next if air strikes didn't work -- escalate further?

With the Cold War over and the stakes in the superpower competition gone, Mr. Aspin argued during his confirmation hearing, "backing off" short of victory might be acceptable in cases like Bosnia: "Maybe you can use force not to achieve something but to punish people for doing certain things."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a naval aviator who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison, was asked about this at breakfast the other morning.

"At least temporarily," he replied, "the Aspin idea has gone by the board."

A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. McCain said any operation against the Bosnian Serbs would cause "significant civilian casualties and a backlash that would make it an unprofitable enterprise."

In a Congress much divided over what policy should be followed on Bosnia, Mr. McCain has been in the forefront of those who oppose U.S. military involvement on grounds that most any option would make matters worse.

"I have yet to hear anyone . . . describe a viable military option, except with massive use of ground troops," he said. And that is the one that governments uniformly reject.

Charles Corddry writes about military and security issues from the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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