WASHINGTON — FOR two years, President Clinton has sought to deal with ethnic conflict in Bosnia without making a crucial policy choice: whether to accept partition of the war-ravaged nation as a distasteful necessity or to hold out for a unified Bosnian state. He may soon be forced to decide.
Pressed by Congress to take a harder line against Serbian insurgents in Bosnia, administration officials plan to introduce a resolution today in the United Nations Security Council to exempt the Bosnian government from an arms embargo imposed three years ago on combatants throughout the former Yugoslavia.
If the resolution is defeated, which seems all but certain, Mr. Clinton will then have to choose between Congress, which will seek to lift the arms embargo unilaterally to strengthen Bosnia's ability to defend itself, and the United States' Western allies, which have effectively given up on a unified Bosnia. Either way, the consequences for Clinton are likely to be disagreeable. ``If he goes the unilateral route, he's going to pay a price in NATO, the UN, and bilaterally with the Russians,'' says a senior Senate source. ``If he doesn't, then he's going to have a Congress looking for opportunities to take foreign policy out of his hands.''
The administration and Congress have championed the Bosnian government because of Serbian atrocities committed against Muslims and Croats. The government also won points in Washington when it approved - and Bosnian Serbs rejected - a peace plan drafted by the US, France, Germany, Britain, and Russia that would have given control of nearly half the country to the Serbs while preserving the country's sovereignty.
Western powers have shown no interest in repelling Bosnian Serbs or maintaining stiff sanctions against their patron, the republic of Serbia.
Apparent majorities in the House and Senate, on the other hand, remain determined to provide the arms Bosnia needs to defend itself.
Clinton favors lifting the arms sanctions, but only in a multilateral context. Last August, Congress instructed Clinton to seek UN approval for lifting of the arms ban if Bosnian Serbs failed to agree on peace before the end of October. The US proposal calls for automatically lifting the arms ban in six months.
If the UN does not agree by Nov. 15 - ``I don't believe there's a chance that the Council will go along,'' says a senior UN official - American forces will be barred by Congress from enforcing the embargo.
``If we maintain the status quo, we're propping up Serbian aggression,'' says Rep. Frank McCloskey, (D) of Indiana, a staunch supporter of lifting the embargo. ``If the Bosnian Serbs know they're going to be solidly resisted, they will want to negotiate rather than take casualties.''
Critics say lifting the embargo will only widen the Bosnian war and place British and French peacekeeping forces in harm's way. If the troops are withdrawn, Serbian forces could lay open siege to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and other areas designated as ``safe havens'' by the UN.
Unilateral moves by the US on Bosnia could be used as a pretext by other Western allies to break economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, where US interests are more directly at stake.
``Unilateralism sets a bad precedent,'' says Patrick Glynn of the American Enterprise Institute. ``It would be a real disaster for the US to go its own way on this.''
Critics say the untenable position the administration now finds itself in is a result of its own indecision. Though they have since backed off, administration officials initially defined the Bosnian crisis as a test case of American resolve in the post-cold-war world and made the argument for lifting sanctions, a view a majority in Congress now embrace.
No goal, no success
``The administration got in trouble when it first staked out a strong position on Bosnia without thinking through the implications,'' notes the senior Senate source. ``It's precisely because the administration doesn't know what its ultimate goal is that it's driving right into this train wreck.''
Critics of Congress say lawmakers are driven by a humanitarian impulse that is largely disconnected from circumstances on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and from the consensus that exists among the other permanent members of the UN Security Council.
They are also driven by politics, as the Senate source notes: ``The issue plays to so many things: a humanitarian impulse, a bash-the-administration impulse, a bash-the-UN impulse.''
Some lawmakers privately concede that there is a downside to going it alone on the sanctions issue. But after a series of votes over the past two years on amendments and resolutions pertaining to Bosnia, most are too committed publicly to back away.
Backers of the move to lift sanctions say they will press for a binding resolution on the matter, probably sometime in January or early February. That will leave Clinton with a difficult choice.
If he goes along, he will pay a high price internationally by testing the unity of the Western alliance.
If he decides to veto the resolution, he will pay a high price domestically by inviting charges of weakness in dealing with the Serbs.
``He'll have to veto it because he's now the foreign-policy president and because this is a loony issue,'' says another congressional source. ``But when he does, he'll instantly give his enemies ammunition.''