WASHINGTON -- President Clinton kept his promise to the NATO allies yesterday by vetoing legislation that calls for lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, a move that he insists would make a bad situation worse.
"I know that members of Congress share my goals of reducing the violence in Bosnia and working to end the war," Mr. Clinton said. "But their vote to unilaterally lift the arms embargo is the wrong step at the wrong time."
In European capitals, Mr. Clinton's move was welcomed. But on Capitol Hill, influential members of both parties decried the president's action, arguing that the embargo puts the Bosnian Muslims at a disadvantage against their better-armed Bosnian Serb enemies.
"For more than a year, the opponents of the lift issued dire warnings that it would encourage the Bosnian Serbs to overrun the so-called U.N. safe areas in eastern Bosnia," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat.
"In actuality, they overran Srebrenica and Zepa without waiting for the U.S. Congress to act," he said. "After[ward], the Bosnian Serbs continued the organized, centrally planned murder, rape and pillage for which they have become infamous."
"I hope that the president would keep in mind that the overwhelming votes in the Senate and the House are a repudiation of the administration's approach, which is to support a failed U.N. operation in Bosnia and to deny the victims of aggression the right to defend themselves."
The measure to lift the arms embargo was passed by veto-proof margins in the House and Senate, but White House officials expressed confidence that they could beat back attempts to override his veto.
They left little to chance, however, waiting until the House was out of session and the Senate hours from adjournment before sending the veto message to Capitol Hill.
Congress can take up the issue when it returns after Labor Day. White House officials hope that recent developments on the battlefield in the former Yugoslavia may open the door to negotiations that would make lifting the arms embargo a less attractive option.
Lifting the embargo unilaterally was advocated by members of Congress who argued that the United Nations arms embargo imposed on the nations that formed in the breakup of Yugoslavia had penalized only one side in the conflict -- the Bosnian Muslims.
The embargo served to solidify the advantage in heavy and light weaponry held by the Bosnian Serbs, who have been supplied by the Serbs in Belgrade and who have access to the arsenal of the former Yugoslavian army.
Neither the Clinton administration nor the NATO allies contest that point. But they insist that lifting the embargo would make matters worse.
"It would intensify the fighting, jeopardize diplomacy and make the outcome of the war in Bosnia an American responsibility," Mr. Clinton said yesterday.
In addition, France and Britain -- the two nations with the most U.N. peacekeepers on the ground in Bosnia -- vow to order their troops home immediately if the United States, which has no ground troops in Bosnia, lifts the embargo unilaterally.
The president and his foreign policy aides argue that if the allies made good on their threats -- and they have no doubt they will -- a vacuum would be created that only the United States could fill. Arming the Bosnian Muslims -- as well as training them how to use the advanced weaponry -- would also fall solely to the United States, they say.
Most members of Congress have lost patience with those arguments as they have become angered by a steady stream of reports documenting Bosnian Serb atrocities. On Thursday, Mr. Dole and others introduced a bill to arm the Bosnian Muslims once the arms embargo is lifted.
"Aerial photography has revealed freshly dug earth in a large area where days before thousands of Muslims had been held," Mr. Biden said. "We believe that the Bosnian Serbs carried out the largest mass murder in Europe since the days of Adolph Hitler.
"If we had acted to lift the immoral and illegal arms embargo three years ago when I first urged the Congress to do so, those Muslim men and boys might have been able to defend themselves against the genocidal Serbian gangs."
Republican congressional leaders plan to take up the vetoed measure shortly after Congress reconvenes Sept. 5.
Mr. Dole and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both predicted that the outcome of the vote would depend greatly on what happens on the ground in Bosnia over the next three weeks.
The overrunning of Serbian territory by Croatian troops in the Krajina region that borders Croatia and Bosnia last week has created an opening for peace, White House officials say.
The U.S. national security adviser, Anthony Lake, was in France yesterday sketching for Foreign Ministry officials the administration's new ideas for a peace settlement. Russia announced that Mr. Lake would meet Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev tomorrow.