US Takes Cautious Line on Bosnia

Defense Secretary Cheney emphasizes humanitarian aid, downplays possible use of force

NOW that the United States says it is prepared to help out in Balkans relief efforts, the Pentagon is facing a troubling question: What would US forces be getting into?

President Bush said in a television appearance Wednesday that he is not yet ready to order US forces in. "It's right for the United States not to go ramming in as the sole perpetrator of force," he said.

Going in with food supplies and other aid in the midst of ongoing battles would require a second stage UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force if necessary, according to US officials.

Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was careful on Tuesday to describe any US-aided international involvement in the ex-Yugoslav republics as having a narrow humanitarian purpose.

No country in the world community is offering to go in and forcibly separate warring sides, he said.

But once foreign forces start providing food and safety to civilians in Sarajevo, they might find it hard to stop the effort, or even to limit it to one city.

"You've got half a dozen other major cities around Bosnia that have similar problems to Sarajevo. Do you begin to create other protection zones?" said Janusz Bugajski, associate director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At this point the US is offering only airpower and logistical help to aid UN efforts.

US ground troops wouldn't be involved, said Pentagon chief Cheney at a breakfast with reporters.

The US is prepared to go in even if the cease fire at the Sarejevo airport doesn't hold and UN peacekeeping troops now holding the site are forced to withdraw.

"We've been looking at another level of involvement in the event we're not able to get the cease fire," said Secretary Cheney.

Pentagon contingency planning is at this point focusing on delivering aid via UN truck convoys driven in from the seaport of Split, some 150 miles from Sarajevo.

The Sarajevo airport would be difficult to use even if Serb gunners pulled their artillery back from surrounding hills.

Besides being in a vulnerable valley, the airport has but one runway, and its loading aprons are small by US military standards.

"The Sarajevo airport is severely limited in how much traffic it can handle," pointed out Cheney. "It's probably more appropriate if you're going to mount an effort to do it overland."

In finally stating publicly that the US is going to get involved in the Yugoslav war in some fashion, the Bush administration has completed a gradual policy turnaround that has been in the works for some months.

When fighting first started in Croatia, US Department of State officials insisted that no American interests were threatened by the fighting. But months of spreading, savage fighting, plus reports of the suffering of civilians and the failure of diplomacy to alleviate the situation, have pushed US policymakers to change course.

Secretary Cheney says he is "appalled by the loss of life" in what used to considered a civilized corner of Europe. Still, he says the situation doesn't merit a Desert Storm-like military coalition, involving substantial US ground power.

The difference, he said, is that in the Gulf one sovereign nation forcibly tried to annex another. But in the Balkans "one of the keys to the situation is that this is an internal civil war," said the Pentagon chief.

In Bosnia, ethnic Serb militias have attacked Muslims in what they call an attempt to ethnically purify the ex-Yugoslav republic. Many in the West, however, blame Serbia itself for aiding the Serb militias and for fomenting the trouble to begin with.

The problem with limiting any international effort to provide humanitarian aid is that it doesn't change the situation which led to the need for aid in the first place, says Dan Nelson, a Georgetown University Russian studies professor.

Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, the villain of the piece to many in the west, remains in power. Ethnic Serb gunners will still surround Sarajevo, even if they pull back.

"The fundamental dilemmas remain absolutely unresolved," says Professor Nelson.

He says he believes the situation will inevitably suck the UN, and by extension the US, further in before it's over. "We are now being pulled toward intervention in much the same way that we were pulled toward the invasion of Panama and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein," he says.

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