WASHINGTON -- With a margin large enough to override a threatened presidential veto, the Senate sharply repudiated President Clinton's Bosnia policy yesterday by voting to end U.S. participation in an arms embargo on that war-torn nation.
The 69-29 vote reflected widespread despair over an approach that has failed to prevent the rape, torture and slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by their Serbian neighbors or even to protect the United Nations peacekeepers in the region.
If Congress succeeds in lifting the embargo, it will likely trigger a sequence of events that could involve the deployment of U.S. ground troops, which have been committed by Mr. Clinton to help U.N. peacekeepers withdraw.
"We did . . . the right thing," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, chief proponent of the measure, who won the support of 21 Democrats, even though he is the leading GOP challenger to Mr. Clinton's re-election.
Five Republicans and 24 Democrats opposed the bill, including Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats.
"This is not about politics -- it's about life or death for a little country," declared Mr. Dole, who has long argued that the 4-year-old embargo on the former Yugoslavia makes it impossible for the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves against the Bosnian Serbs who have benefited from the arsenals of the former Yugoslavian army.
Several Democrats joined the attack on the administration's Bosnia policy. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said the Clinton approach put the United States in the position of tolerating genocide.
"I'm very proud and grateful to our colleagues," Mr. Lieberman said. "No matter what anybody said, this was not an easy vote. Particularly when those opposed to it were saying a vote in favor would Americanize the war, increase the bloodshed and destroy the NATO alliance. It took some courage of conviction."
Mr. Dole garnered two votes more than would be needed to override a veto. But Mr. Clinton, who has threatened to veto the bill, held out hope that lawmakers ultimately would be persuaded not to defy U.S. allies in Europe. The Europeans -- especially France and Britain -- fear that lifting the arms embargo would escalate the conflict and endanger their troops who are serving as U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia.
"I do not believe the strong course for the United States and the strong course for the people of Bosnia is to unilaterally lift the arms embargo, collapse the U.N. mission and increase the chances of injecting Americans troops there," Mr. Clinton told reporters.
Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, seemed to concede that the unexpectedly strong Senate vote would force a change in U.S. Bosnia policy and sought to put the blame squarely on Congress.
"And good luck to all of us after they take this vote today and it is finally ratified and survives a veto, because there are going to be an awful lot of people who are going to end up dying as a result," he said.
Prospects for a veto
Other senior officials said they hope that more serious military action by U.N. troops and a tougher NATO airstrike posture would win back some votes in the Senate and prevent a presidential veto from being overridden.
Congressional frustration at the failure of the United Nations and NATO to stop the Bosnian carnage and the dislocation of tens of thousands of refugees is even stronger in the House, which voted last month by a 3-1 margin to back a similar proposal to unilaterally lift the arms embargo. But because that measure was attached to separate legislation, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is trying to schedule a second vote on a freestanding bill to match the Senate measure.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who sponsored last month's Bosnia amendment, said it's too soon to say whether a freestanding bill would garner as much support -- particularly in view of the administration's high-pressure lobbying.
"This is not an amendment to a bill that doesn't have much chance of passing; this is something that would go directly from here to the president," Mr. Hoyer said. "I think a lot of people are going to reassess their position."
Many of the lawmakers who voted in favor of lifting the embargo said they did so more as an effort to change the political dynamics than as an expression of confidence that this new approach would be any better.
"Neither the current policy of the United Nations and NATO, nor the Dole-Lieberman approach" is coherent, said Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, one of the Senate's leading voices on national security matters. "With either policy . . . there is a danger that the conflict will be increasingly Americanized."
Even so, Mr. Nunn voted in favor, saying he hoped it would strengthen U.S. efforts to get the allies to agree that the time has come for all to lift the embargo.
The legislation requires the United States to lift the arms embargo after the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers or within 12 weeks of a request by the Bosnian government for their departure. The measure empowers the president to delay the lifting of the embargo if the safety of the peacekeepers is in jeopardy.
European diplomats, who were closely watching this challenge to Mr. Clinton, worried that an allied position on Bosnia that had only recently been affirmed could now be derailed.
"A lot will depend on what will go on in the next weeks in the field," a European diplomat said. If the U.N. reinforcements succeed in halting a downward spiral, he said, "I don't think Clinton has lost that fight."
French Foreign Minister Herve de Cherette, through a spokesman, reiterated his country's previous warning that "lifting the embargo would make the search for peace more difficult" and make the departure of the U.N. forces "automatic."
A move by the United States to lift the embargo unilaterally would not end the overall 1991 U.N. ban on shipping arms to the Bosnians unless the U.N. Security Council acted to drop it. But in practical effect, it would be widely seen as rendering the U.N. embargo meaningless. Bosnians would be able to buy arms on the open market, and there would be congressional pressure for the Clinton administration to provide weapons and training.
If conditions in Bosnia deteriorate to the point where the fragile international support for U.N. peacekeeping collapses, a decision on withdrawal would have to be made by late September so it could be completed before winter, when the weather would severely impede troops movements.