WASHINGTON -- The absence of a clearly spelled-out "exit strategy" emerged yesterday as a major impediment in President Clinton's campaign to win congressional support for sending American soldiers into Bosnia.
In his televised speech to the nation Monday night, Mr. Clinton said the troops would oversee the separation of the warring armies and "create a secure environment," staying for about a year.
But the administration isn't totally confident itself about this scenario. In fact, U.S. officials refuse to rule out the possibility of aborting the mission if one or more Bosnian parties opposes it, extending it beyond one year or eventually replacing the U.S.-NATO force with European peacekeepers.
The controversy surrounding when and how the troops can leave Bosnia is certain to be a prime topic tomorrow when President Clinton's top national security advisers -- the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff -- begin testifying before Congress about the agreement.
"A date certain is not an exit strategy. It's just a date," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said of the one-year timetable in a television interview. "As you know, this conflict has been going on for over 500 years -- as much as 1,000 years in the view of some historians. And what concrete objectives can we achieve? And what objectives do we expect to have achieved by the time the year is up?"
The U.S. troop deployment fulfills a pledge President Clinton made in early 1993 to contribute American forces to helping implement a Bosnian peace accord. Last week, after 21 days of U.S.-brokered negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia initialed an agreement ending 3 1/2 years of war.
While seeking support from lawmakers, the administration moved forward yesterday with plans to send 20,000 American and 40,000 other NATO troops into Bosnia, probably by Dec. 21, regardless of congressional sentiment.
In Brussels, Belgium, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the United States plans to send up to 700 troops to Bosnia within a week to set up headquarters and communications for the huge North Atlantic Treaty Organization force that will follow.
A White House official said President Clinton may approve NATO's military plan Saturday, when he is due to visit American troops in Germany. Leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia are due to sign their peace accord in Paris in mid-December, probably by the 17th. Four days later, the major deployment will be under way.
The absence of a clear U.S. mission in Bosnia was a recurring theme of Republican reaction to the president's speech.
"The president did not describe or define the mission for the American public," complained Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in opening hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He did not describe the 'clear and realistic goals,' nor did he clearly describe the framework or the exit strategy."
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to former President George Bush, told the committee: "The president said that the mission is clear and focused, but he did not say what it was. Is it simply to keep the militaries of the three combatants separated? Is it to defend the Bosnians until they can defend themselves?"
Republicans weren't the only ones to highlight the absence of a clear strategy.
"The exit strategy is one of the fundamental questions, and that involves a lot of different parts," said Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat.
The question gets to what even administration officials acknowledge is a vague part of their policy.
Key to the whole issue is whether the NATO troops' departure from Bosnia will be governed by a goal or a timetable. Different administration spokesmen have suggested both.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, interviewed by Larry King Monday night, stressed that the warring parties want "a period of time" to build confidence in the peace process.
The day before, Mr. Perry sounded more goal-oriented: The NATO force is supposed to have completed many of its specific functions within about six months, he said.
These include separating the warring armies, making sure their weapons are pulled back and maintaining a cease-fire. In the remaining six months, troops would maintain security while economic reconstruction and elections move forward, he said.
The administration and Congress agree on one goal -- creating a balance of forces in Bosnia -- but disagree on how to get there. Mr. Perry wants to press the Bosnian Serbs to disarm.
Only if that doesn't work, he says, would the administration support arming and training the Bosnian government's forces, and by someone other than the U.S. military. The Dayton pact bars shipments of heavy weapons for six months.