WASHINGTON — WITH the end of hostilities in Bosnia now a real possibility, the Clinton administration is redoubling efforts to convince a skeptical Congress of the need to dispatch 20,000 US troops to the Balkans to help police any signed-sealed-and-delivered Bosnian peace deal.
So far, the peacekeeping plan has proved a tough sell - particularly with many congressional Republicans. Recalling the debacle in Somalia, many GOP lawmakers are skeptical about the durability of an accord between the Balkan foes after more than three years of bloodshed. They wonder why US lives should be risked to resolve a foreign war that holds little import for a majority of Americans.
"The American public and the Congress need answers to important questions before the president deploys US military troops to Bosnia to enforce a peace agreement," says Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We must ... weigh those risks carefully."
The administration claims that the effort is part of America's leadership responsibility. As top Clinton officials see it, a promise of US participation in NATO's planned peacekeeping effort is crucial to keeping peace negotiations on track. Beyond that, they say, a decisive US role is required to ensure US leadership of the 16-member NATO alliance in post-cold-war Europe.
"This is our best chance to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia in four years," Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "Future generations would neither understand nor forgive us if we turned our backs on this opportunity. America must continue to lead."
The debate is taking on new urgency as the latest cease-fire and intensified US diplomacy appear to offer the best-ever prospects for settling Europe's worst conflict since World War II.
Domestic politics are looming large over the debate because US military involvement in Bosnia could have a profound impact on next year's presidential election. Should the US-led peace effort prevail, President Clinton would gain big foreign-policy points and burnish his image as a world leader. A failure that claimed serious US casualties could cost him a second term.
Bosnia is also stoking a post-cold-war tussle over national security policymaking, with the White House resisting congressional encroachment in the form of a resolution authorizing the US to participate in the NATO force. Unless Clinton seeks a vote "you might see a very ugly fight erupt that would have severe consequences for ... relations between the Congress and the executive branch," warns Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.
But, while saying they would "welcome" a congressional resolution, administration officials make it clear they believe the Constitution allows Clinton to proceed without one.
To sell that case, Mr. Christopher, Defense Secretary William Perry, and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent Tuesday and yesterday testifying before Senate and House committees. While many lawmakers remained dissatisfied, the three did fill in some important blanks.
They conceded that the Bosnia mission would be very risky. But they insisted that US troops would be heavily equipped, under NATO command, and have engagement rules allowing retaliation for the least provocation. The US contingent, said Mr. Perry, would be "the biggest, toughest, and meanest dog in town."
No NATO troops would be deployed until the Muslim-led Bosnian government, the allied Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Serb rebels signed a peace accord. With the basic principles settled last month, talks on dividing Bosnia into Muslim-Croat, and Serb areas are to start Oct. 31 in the US between Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Those talks are to be followed by an international peace conference in Paris.
Within hours of an accord, a 60,000-strong NATO Intervention Force, or IFOR, would begin moving into Bosnia to secure "zones of separation" between the foes. General Shalikashvili said the US would contribute a division, numbering 20,000 troops. The deployment may require a call-up of 2,000 to 3,000 reservists, will last no more than a year, and would cost $1.5 billion, he added.
As yet to be resolved is Russian participation in the operation. Moscow is refusing to place its troops under NATO command.
As part of an "exit strategy," the US will seek the lifting of the UN arms embargo on the Bosnian government so that it can attain parity with the Bosnian Serbs in heavy weapons. The resulting power balance will ensure conditions for stability, reconstruction, and a NATO pullout, Perry said.
But some lawmakers are skeptical that, if a peace accord is reached, it can be implemented within the 12-month limit on US participation. Christopher bristled with indignation at a suggestion that the period was election-related.
"An arbitrary deadline for withdrawal of US forces is not an exit strategy," says Senator McCain.
Speaking Tuesday with reporters, US Gen. George Joulwan, the supreme NATO commander, elaborated on problems IFOR could face. Aside from extremists on all three Bosnian sides, he said it was likely the force would have to deploy in harsh winter conditions. Snow will make mine detection extremely difficult, he said.