WASHINGTON -- Raising the stakes for the United States in the Bosnian conflict, the Clinton administration is considering the temporary use of NATO forces -- including U.S. troops -- to help beef up the United Nations peacekeeping operation, a senior administration official said yesterday.
Such a decision would mark a major change in U.S. policy. Previously, the United States has said that U.S. ground forces could be sent to Bosnia under only two circumstances: to help in the pullout of U.N. peacekeepers or to help enforce an actual peace agreement.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher will talk with allies in the Netherlands today about how the U.N. force could be strengthened and whether U.S. and other NATO forces would be needed initially.
The position of the peacekeepers has become untenable in recent days, with more than 300 being held as hostages by Bosnian Serbs and as human shields to prevent a repeat of last week's NATO airstrikes against Serbian positions.
The United States supports the position of France that, rather than withdraw from Bosnia, the 20,000-member U.N. force should be strengthened so that it can retaliate against any future Serbian attacks.
Like-minded Britain announced yesterday that it is sending more artillery and armor units to Bosnia to bolster the more than 3,500 Britons serving as U.N. peacekeepers. The British Parliament also was recalled to discuss the Bosnia crisis. It will meet Wednesday.
NATO planners have already been assigned to figure out how the alliance's forces could be used to help strengthen the U.N. presence in Bosnia.
A senior official involved in U.S. policy-making on Bosnia said that during today's discussions in the Netherlands, Mr. Christopher is ready to tell the allies that the administration is "prepared to consider" bringing NATO troops temporarily into Bosnia to help move and strengthen the peacekeepers.
"He'll say we're prepared to consider it," the official said.
This would presumably involve U.S. ground troops, at least for a brief period, the official said. And, he said, it would carry "a higher risk in the short term" to U.S. forces than if U.S. forces were used only to help in a withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers. That is because the Serbs would probably resist any move to strengthen the U.N. force.
The official did not say how many U.S. troops might be involved. But last night, CNN, citing unidentified sources, said that a three-ship U.S. amphibious task force carrying 2,000 Marines has broken off routine exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and moved into the Adriatic Sea, within reach of Bosnia. It described the move as "a precaution."
The option of U.S. troops in Bosnia has not yet been put before President Clinton for a decision, the official said. Mr. Christopher thus won't be able today to make a firm promise. The administration would also have to persuade Congress not to block the move.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a Republican presidential candidate who has been a major congressional voice on foreign affairs, urged yesterday that the president seek authorization from Congress to dispatch U.S. troops to Bosnia.
"That would give some credibility that something is going to happen," he said. "Absent that, this meeting in The Hague will amount to nothing."
Before leaving for today's meeting, Mr. Christopher met at the White House with Defense Secretary William J. Perry; Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Samuel Berger, the deputy national security adviser. Mr. Clinton did not attend the White House meeting.
Talks with allies
Calvin Mitchell, a White House spokesman, said the top officials discussed a range of options for strengthening the U.N. forces. Mr. Clinton spoke by phone Saturday with President Jacques Chirac of France and Prime Minister John Major of Britain.
Today's meeting, and later sessions this week in Norway, are expected to be tense, because nations that have contributed troops to the NATO force are divided on what to do next.
France has been the strongest proponent of strengthening U.N. troops so they can defend themselves, or else withdrawing them. But some other nations want to scale back the U.N. operation and avoid confrontations with the Serbs.
The Clinton administration for three years has refused to contribute troops to the peacekeeping mission, although the United States continues to pay one-third of the cost and spends more than any other nation on NATO's air and sea support for the mission. Officials said yesterday that the refusal still stands.
The problem with trying to beef up the U.N. force is that the United Nations is unlikely to be able to persuade contributing nations to add many more troops.
Another is that to place troops in a better position to defend themselves, the United Nations may have to abandon at least some of the Muslim "safe areas," which the U.N. Security Council has pledged to protect.
The administration wants the United Nations to continue to protect the safe areas and focus on "strengthening and reconfiguring [the peacekeepers] at existing locations," the senior official said.
Last week's air strikes brought recriminations from France yesterday, with Prime Minister Alain Juppe calling them "a mistake."
As Bosnia's Serbs mounted their most aggressive assault yet on U.N. peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia, they forced a fundamental rethinking of the Western approach to the conflict.
Since 1992, the West has assigned top priority to maintaining a force of 20,000 peacekeepers to contain the war and relieve suffering in Bosnia. Withstanding humiliations, the U.N. force has until now avoided taking sides and has negotiated with the Serbs, who control 70 percent of the territory in Bosnia, to open relief routes and prevent heavy-weapons attacks in civilian areas.
Air strikes by the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, intended to protect and help the peacekeepers, have been called for sparingly and at times have been vetoed by civilian U.N. authorities. Until NATO planes struck ammunition dumps near the Serbian headquarters in Pale last week, they generally avoided strategic Serbian targets.
But the whole rationale undergirding the U.N. mission is crumbling as Bosnian Serbs and their enemies, the Muslim-led Bosnian government, escalate the 4-year-old conflict. A peace settlement is as remote as ever.