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On the Ground in Bosnia


President Clinton is pushing the United States ever closer to involvement in conflict on the ground in Bosnia even while denying he is doing so. By declaring he is willing to contemplate the "temporary use" of American forces to assist the United Nations command in "a reconfiguration and a strengthening of its forces," Mr. Clinton is going way beyond his previous pledges to get involved only to facilitate the evacuation of U.N. peace keepers. But in a typical attempt to have it both ways, he told Air Force Academy graduates that "we have made the right decision in not commiting our forces to become embroiled in this conflict in Europe."

Unfortunately, this country is getting steadily more embroiled in the Bosnia quagmire. If we send in rapid reaction units to rescue U.N. personnel now held hostage by Bosnian Serb aggressors, the likelihood is high that they will be caught in fire fights. If it becomes the U.S. mission to help British and French contingents pull out of exposed positions so they can consolidate for military advantage, it is difficult to believe the Serbs will stand idly by. And if the whole NATO force buildup now going on becomes but a prelude for evacuation, American ground forces might have to help U.N. troops fight their way out.

The order of the day in Western circles is to talk tough and vow to stay in Bosnia lest the Serbs inflict even greater humanitarian outrages upon the out-gunned Muslims. But three years of bobbing and bluster by all the outside powers lend little credence to such rhetoric.

Lord Owen, the European Union negotiator in Bosnia, said "if there is not a peace settlement by the autumn of this year, then the U.N. forces, I fear, will be forced to leave." Mr. Clinton stated in his Air Force Academy speech that the U.S. should be prepared to "help in a withdrawal." And U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali raised the prospect of radical change in the whole operation.

Rejecting both withdrawal and maintenance of the status quo, Mr. Boutros-Ghali proposed that the blue-helmet troops of 16 nations now under nominal U.N. command in Bosnia be replaced by a multinational force under the national command of its various components. Concurrently, he would scale down the present U.N. mandate to only passive peace-keeping, thus abandoning all pretensions of peace enforcement.

President Clinton's expansion of the U.S. ground-force commitment to Bosnia, even though hedged with some big "ifs," comes at a time when neither the American people nor the Congress are convinced that vital national interests are sufficiently at stake to warrant the potential casualties involved. This could be a blunder and a tragedy. If things turn out badly, like the disaster in Somalia, it could seriously undercut the American leadership that is needed for effective international containment of crises and upheaval.

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