WASHINGTON -- Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday defended the administration's pledge to deploy up to 25,000 U.S. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, telling members of Congress that the force had to be large enough to avoid being "pushed around."
General Shalikashvili said that if the warring parties in Bosnia negotiated a settlement, no more than half the NATO peacekeeping troops would be from the United States.
"It is very important that . . . they are robust enough to take care of themselves, and to ensure the freedom of movement so that they don't get pushed around like [the U.N. peacekeeping force] has been," he said.
The NATO peacekeepers would leave once the Bosnian government forces were trained and armed to defend themselves, the general said, and "under no circumstances" would they stay beyond the end of 1996.
NATO officers are still drafting the peacekeeping plan, and General Shalikashvili said it had not been decided how many U.S. troops would be involved, but 25,000 was the maximum.
Setting the stage for a confrontation with the White House over the next stage of the Bosnian crisis, Republican and Democratic members of Congress demanded yesterday that the administration seek congressional approval before sending troops to Bosnia as part of a NATO peace-implementation force.
General Shalikashvili, speaking at hearings on his nomination to a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the administration would consult with Congress.
Consultation, however, can stop short of seeking approval. Asked whether the administration intended to send peacekeepers regardless of congressional action, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns replied: "This administration is publicly and privately committed to the parties and to our allies that we will be part of a peace implementation force, yes."
Throughout the war, Mr. Clinton -- like President George Bush -- has said U.S. troops would be sent to the former Yugoslavia only under two conditions: if peace is declared or the U.N. troops need to be evacuated.
Saying he was "deeply concerned" about further U.S. involvement in Bosnia, Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, asked the general what would happen if Congress refused to approve the peacekeeping mission.
General Shalikashvili replied that allied unity and U.S. leadership of NATO would suffer, adding: "We have seen that absent America's leadership role, things still don't get put together right."
Until this month's U.S.-led bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets, NATO and U.N. operations in Bosnia had been criticized as weak and unfocused. The search for a settlement also was stymied until Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, began his peace shuttle last month.
The White House announced plans for a meeting Tuesday in New York to maintain momentum in the peace effort. Led by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Carl Bildt, from the European Union, the meeting will include foreign ministers of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia -- as well as of Britain, France, Germany and Russia.
The United States hopes to set up a peace conference for face-to-face negotiations, but officials say more shuttle diplomacy by U.S. envoys will be needed first. State Department official Chris Hill and Roberts Owen, a legal expert representing the United States, will return to the region this weekend.
Officials say the parties are still divided on territory and constitutional arrangements even though they have agreed to broad principles.
At the hearing yesterday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona seemed to speak for other Republicans on the Armed Services panel when he asked: "Why can't the Europeans carry out these peacekeeping duties themselves? Why is it that a United States lTC presence is required?"
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, General Shalikashvili pointed out, was built around U.S. leadership.
"At the time we're asking the alliance to undertake the most challenging operation they will have been asked to undertake, we cannot excuse ourselves from it and still think that we can step back tomorrow and remain the leader of the alliance," he added.
Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine worried: "We have to consider the consequences to NATO itself if U.S. forces became caught in the cross-fire, started dying, and public opinion shifted, demanding that we withdraw from that region."
General Shalikashvili noted that U.S. troops would be armed and equipped "so that no one can look at them and have any doubt that these [troops] can take care of themselves."
The general assured the panel that the alliance had "broken the shackles" of the command system that made all previous allied military decisions in Bosnia subject to both U.N. and NATO approval. The peacekeeping operation, he said, would be under NATO command only.
General Shalikashvili left the committee hearing with the assurance that the full Senate would approve his renomination before he completes his first term at the end of this month.