WASHINGTON -- President Clinton vowed yesterday to unleash U.S. warplanes on Serbian positions outside Sarajevo unless Bosnian Serbs meet the NATO deadline to retreat from around that besieged city by tonight.
"Our actions will be determined by one thing -- the facts on the ground," Mr. Clinton said in a speech delivered from the Oval Office.
"Our military goal will be straightforward: to exact a heavy price on those who refuse to comply with the ultimatum."
Mr. Clinton used his weekly Saturday radio address to speak on Bosnia. To gain a wider audience and upgrade the importance of the event, White House officials promoted this on Friday as a major address.
Mr. Clinton was also accompanied into the Oval Office by several of his top advisers, including Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, White House counselor David R. Gergen, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
White House officials took the unusual step of allowing a pool of reporters into the Oval Office with the president, including a camera crew. The speech, which began at 10:06 a.m., was carried live on ABC and CNN, which broadcasts around the world, underscoring the point that White House officials had two distinct audiences in mind.
The first was the American public, whose week-to-week opinions are given considerable weight in this White House and who several recent public opinion polls indicate may be more ready for military involvement in the former Yugoslavia than the Clinton administration.
Still, the president delivered a sober warning to his fellow Americans.
"American planes likely will account for about half the NATO air strikes, if they proceed," he said. "General Shalikashvili has told me that our forces are well-prepared for this operation. But the fact is, there is no such thing as a mission completely without risks, and losses may occur."
The president also outlined for the American public what the stakes are for the United States.
"This century teaches us that America cannot afford to ignore conflicts in Europe," he said. "We have an interest in helping to prevent this from becoming a broader European conflict, especially one that could threaten our NATO allies or undermine the transition of former Communist states to peaceful democracies."
Mr. Clinton added, as he had argued behind closed doors during his recent trip to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, that the alliance's credibility was on the line in Bosnia. And, he concluded, "We clearly have a humanitarian interest in helping to stop the strangulation of Sarajevo and the continuing slaughter of innocents in Bosnia."
The other audience that Clinton targeted was the Serbian
commanders themselves. The president sought to make it clear that this time, after months and months of idle threats from NATO and the United States, the West is ready for action.
"We are determined to make good on NATO's word," he vowed. "And we are prepared to act."
When first elected, Mr. Clinton reacted with anger and horror to ++ reports of Serbian atrocities, which included the mass rape of Muslim girls and women, the systematic killing of male noncombatants and various other attempts at what the Serbs called "ethnic cleansing."
Since last May, however, when Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was dispatched to Europe and found little enthusiasm among the Western allies for sustained military involvement in Bosnia, White House officials have changed the way they speak about the crisis.
Mr. Christopher and Mr. Clinton began describing the fighting in the former Yugoslavia as more of a civil war -- with excesses on both sides.
That change in attitude was seen as a cop-out even within the State Department, where several officials have resigned in disgust over the administration's inaction. But this winter, as the Serbs' vise around Sarajevo tightened, six children were killed as they sledded on hills that only 10 years ago were sites for the Winter Olympics. And two weeks ago, another Serbian shell exploded in a Sarajevo marketplace, killing 68.
That attack provoked outrage in the West -- and led to the 10-day deadline for the Serbs to remove their big guns in a 13-mile radius around the city.
Yesterday, the president placed most of the blame on the Serbs, not only for the market attack, but for the 22-month nightmare that has left an estimated 200,000 people dead or missing in Bosnia.
The deadline for them to comply with the NATO ultimatum passes tonight at 7 p.m. EST, which is 1 a.m. tomorrow in Sarajevo.
In the Bosnian capital, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the commander of U.N. forces there, said that Serb leaders have made assurances that NATO air strikes won't be necessary. "Every indication at the moment is that there will be full compliance," Sir Michael said.
When asked whether NATO military action would be required, a grim-faced Mr. Clinton offered no prediction at all.
Mr. Christopher may have put it best: "The Serbs have disappointed us many times before."