WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said yesterday that there is an increasing chance that United Nations forces will begin withdrawing from Bosnia this fall, despite recent promises of reinforcements from Europe and a U.S. pledge of emergency help.
Giving the Clinton administration's clearest and bleakest outlook date on the Balkans war, Mr. Perry told Congress that the sending of a new European quick-reaction force to bolster the peacekeepers "may not work." If it does not, the 22,000-member U.N. force would start withdrawing in the fall, he said.
Mr. Perry said such a withdrawal could lead to tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in Bosnia and increase the danger of a wider war that would threaten "vital" American interests and thus require a major U.S. military response.
U.S. officials fear a war spreading beyond Bosnia would involve NATO allies Greece and Turkey.
A U.N. pullout would require a major U.S. military commitment. The Clinton administration has pledged about 25,000 U.S. troops to a NATO force that would help the U.N. troops withdraw, if the U.N. Security Council decides to do so. Those U.S. forces would need to be in Bosnia for eight to 10 weeks, defense officials say.
"If the rapid-reaction force is not successful," Mr. Perry said, then the countries with the largest numbers of peacekeepers, Britain and France, "will conclude that they cannot continue and will then seek to withdraw their forces and then in all probability will come to NATO and ask for assistance."
He later said that Britain and France would decide at the end of the summer if the new force is working.
In their testimony yesterday to Congress, Mr. Perry and Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struggled to persuade the lawmakers that the U.N. force should stay in Bosnia as long as possible. But they encountered bipartisan opposition for the latest Clinton administration plan for helping the peacekeepers stay.
The nation's two top defense officials testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House National Security Committee, which held separate sessions. The hearings were hastily organized in response to the administration's move last week to expand the role of U.S. forces in the Balkans.
The United States, through NATO, already provides planes and pilots to fly over the Balkan states and has stationed several hundred troops in Macedonia to keep the war from spreading. But last week, the administration also offered the use of U.S. ground forces to help extract U.N. troops from Bosnia, or to help in emergency movements of those troops to a safer location in Bosnia.
"It is an expansion" of U.S. involvement, Mr. Perry said.
In an example of how U.S. troops might be used, Mr. Perry said, American assistance could be sought by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers if they came under attack from Bosnian Serb forces in the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.
"Any such operation would be short-term and aimed at specific problems and tasks," he said in prepared testimony to the armed services panels.
"But let me be clear on this: The United States will not become UNPROFOR's transportation service," he insisted, using the acronym for the U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia. He repeated President Clinton's assertion that a request for U.S. ground forces remained "unlikely."
Any emergency requiring U.S. help would probably be enough to trigger a withdrawal of the entire U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, Mr. Perry said.
But these assurances failed to persuade skeptical senators and House members.
On the Senate panel, only Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy spoke clearly in favor of administration policy. Two influential Democrats, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and John Glenn of Ohio, asked pointed questions.
When General Shalikashvili assured the panel that the United States had not made any "commitment" to rescue peacekeepers, Mr. Glenn retorted that it appeared to have made "a moral commitment."
Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, who voiced support for administration policy as recently as Saturday, said he had been "alarmed" at recent policy statements and that the U.N. Protection Force was becoming irrelevant.
"I urge the president to chart a new course," Mr. Robb said, suggesting the United States ignore the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia's Muslims, "unilaterally if we must." Advocates of this idea say it would give the Bosnians the means to defend themselves and put pressure on the Serbs to reach a peace settlement. The administration says it would undercut other U.N. embargoes and could lead to a wider war.
The two panels' majority Republicans all opposed administration policy to varying degrees.
"I believe the administration is stumbling toward greater
involvement in Bosnia without a coherent policy or clear strategy," said Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
His House counterpart, Floyd Spence, said, "I do not support the introduction of ground troops in Bosnia."
Mr. Perry acknowledged that UNPROFOR, even backed up by the European quick-reaction force, won't be in a position to "confidently carry out its mandate" of protecting civilians and aid convoys.