WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, moving to rally a skeptical public behind his plan to send 20,000 ground troops into Bosnia, told the nation last night that "our values and our responsibilities as Americans" require the United States to act for peace.
"We will have the chance to help stop the killing of innocent civilians, and especially children, and, at the same time, bring stability to Central Europe, a region of the world that is vital to our national interests," the president said in a televised Oval Office address to a prime-time national audience.
"If we're not there, NATO will not be there," he said. "The peace will collapse. The war will reignite. The slaughter of innocents will begin again."
The 20,000 U.S. soldiers would be part of a 60,000-man NATO force dispatched to enforce a cease-fire along a 600-mile border separating the factions in a civil war that has claimed an estimated 250,000 lives.
They would be enforcing a peace plan negotiated on U.S. soil, under intense American pressure -- and initialed by Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders last week in Dayton, Ohio.
"In the choice between peace and war, America must choose peace," the president said.
Mr. Clinton estimated that this job would take about one year, though he offered no firm deadline. He also addressed head-on the issue of most intense interest at home: the prospect of American casualties.
"There may be accidents in the field -- or incidents with people who have not given up their hatred," he said. "I will take every measure possible to minimize the risks. But we must be prepared for that possibility. I assume full responsibility for any harm that may come to them."
At the same time, he talked tough to the sides that have been engaged in a barbaric war against each other since the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia early in 1992.
"Anyone contemplating any action that would endanger our troops should know this: America protects its own," the president said. "Anyone -- anyone -- who takes on our troops will suffer the consequences. We will fight fire with fire -- and then some."
Mr. Clinton employed two distinct lines of argument in making his case last night. One was an appeal to the hearts of Americans, the other to their minds.
The emotional argument was that the peace agreement initialed in Dayton, Ohio, last week can end the ethnic slaughter, rape and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian civilians, especially the embattled Muslim population in Sarajevo and other cities. Scenes of that slaughter have horrified people around the world for more than three years.
"Horrors that we prayed had been banished from Europe forever have been seared into our minds," he said grimly, his hand clasped tightly on his desk. "Skeletal prisoners caged behind barbed wire fences, women and girls raped as an act of war, defenseless men and boys shot down into mass graves "
In his second argument, the president asserted that logic -- and history -- suggest that the failure to bring peace to Bosnia could result in a larger, wider and deadlier war that would inevitably involve the United States with far greater burdens on its military forces.
It has happened before, the president warned. He reminded Americans that World War I was set off when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg empire and that eventually most of Europe was dragged into the conflict. Ethnic fighting this time, administration officials fear, might draw in historic Balkan antagonists, including NATO allies Greece and Turkey; might ignite nascent Russian nationalism and eventually torpedo the relationship between the United States and the states of the former Soviet Union.
"A few weeks ago, I was privileged to spend some time with His Holiness Pope John Paul II when he came to America," Mr. Clinton recalled. "At the end of our meeting, the pope looked at me and said, 'I have lived through most of this century. I remember that it began with a war in Sarajevo. Mr. President, you must not let it end with a war in Sarajevo.' "
Mr. Clinton has stated for more than a year that U.S. ground troops might be needed to enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia. He has also repeatedly stated his willingness to use them for that purpose. Yet most public opinion polls have consistently shown broad-based antipathy to that course of action.
White House aides conceded yesterday that Mr. Clinton had not made much of a dent in the public's doubts. The president was hoping that last night's speech would begin to turn public opinion around -- and he dealt head-on with the primary concerns that have emerged in polls and focus groups of voters.
"America's role will not be about fighting a war, it will be about helping the people of Bosnia secure their own peace," Mr. Clinton said. "Our mission will be limited, focused and under the command of an American general."
The president added: "America cannot and must not be the world's policeman. We cannot stop all war for all time, but we can stop some wars. We cannot save all women and all children. But we can save many of them. We cannot do everything. But we must do what we can."
In addition to the public, Mr. Clinton had a second audience in mind last night: Congress, which is planning to debate and vote on Mr. Clinton's plan.
Over the weekend, White House aides said that the president was committed to sending the 20,000 troops regardless of the vote. But they said that to send them without the support of Congress would be much riskier to Mr. Clinton politically -- and hardly good for the morale of the troops.
Republican leaders in Congress, who declined to offer a televised rebuttal last night, continued to exhibit mixed feelings. On the one hand, they share the public's doubt that America has vital national interests at stake in Bosnia -- or that the United States can solve a conflict rooted in medieval hatreds.
On the other hand, these Republicans seemed uncomfortable with the idea of not standing behind a commander in chief while U.S. troops are preparing to deploy into a war zone.
"It seems to me that the president may have at least laid some foundation, and there may be some obligation that we follow through on that agreement," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole told his colleagues on the Senate floor.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, after discussing Bosnia on LTC the phone with Mr. Clinton before the speech: "I think people are skeptical but I think they are willing to listen."
Not everyone was mollified, however.
Before the speech, Patrick J. Buchanan, who, like Mr. Dole is a Republican presidential candidate, denounced the mission as folly -- and someone else's fight.
"Look, it is 50 years after World War II. When are the Europeans going to take responsibility for what is a bloody ethnic civil war in their own back yard?" he asked. "Now that the Cold War is over, the Soviet empire has collapsed, the Soviet Union has collapsed, other nations of Europe have got to take greater responsibility for their own national defense.
"We can't -- we are not Atlas," he added. "We can't hold up the world forever."