US Political Leaders Must Back Clinton on Bosnia

WE have now entered a defining moment in American foreign policy. The administration has made its decision on Bosnia, and at the core of the new policy is the threat of military action against Serb forces. Finally, what so many observers have demanded for so long has come to pass: The United States will become fully engaged in the Balkans war.

As with our response to Saddam Hussein in August 1990, much more is at stake than the US reply to an individual aggression. The eyes of the world, and of our own citizens, are upon us. Our actions in Bosnia will be viewed as a test-case of American leadership in a new era and a new administration.

I come to this issue with the strong belief that military action is an appropriate element of US foreign policy. I endorsed the intervention in Panama and was one of the original sponsors of the legislation granting President Bush approval for Operation Desert Storm. It is a great irony that many who opposed those operations now demand action in Bosnia and rely for success on the military credibility we have built over the past decade. But this conflict shares little in common with those actions; air str ikes could easily prove counterproductive.

Nonetheless, the president has made his decision. It is now incumbent upon all of us, even those with concerns about the wisdom of military intervention, to support the new policy and demonstrate that Americans are united behind the president. We must pull together in the hope that military strikes will not be required, that the threat of active US involvement will spur a diplomatic solution. Such a threat will only be credible if the president's policy obtains broad support.

US political leaders must therefore help the president to articulate his new objectives to the American people. Congress should have an opportunity to vote on the policy. Then, if Serbian forces continue or escalate their attacks, President Clinton will have a mandate to act rapidly and decisively, with military force if necessary.

This new policy is banking on the idea that the Serbs will find the Vance-Owen plan more palatable than US smart bombs.

Vance-Owen, after all, would ratify Serb control of some 40 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina - less than the 70 percent they control now, but perhaps more than they would end up with after a clash with US and allied military units. And once Vance-Owen is in place, Serbia can get out from under the crushing international embargo that is strangling its economy. This was a tempting deal for Serbia even before the threat of air strikes, a threat that may well tip the balance.

At the same time, we must keep in mind the dangers to abandoning the neutral United Nations process and taking sides in Bosnia. We could alienate the Europeans and Russians, accelerate the Serb offensive, and create sparks in the true Balkan tinderboxes of Croatia, Macedonia, and Kosovo.

We should, therefore, not rush into strikes. Instead we should allow the threat of military action to work on the negotiating process for days and weeks. The threat of some undefined application of force may accomplish far more than actual air strikes.

In this operation, we are betting that our success in those instances where we had clear military objectives - Panama, Desert Storm - will bring about a political outcome in an area where there are no such objectives. I think the threat will work, that a political solution will emerge in coming days and weeks. But if it does not, we must be prepared for a long commitment.

Meanwhile, the American people and their political leaders should take to heart the true lesson of the Bosnia case: In future crises, the US must be prepared to act much more rapidly. At the outset of the Balkans war, the threat of immediate military action against the Serbs might have prevented much of the subsequent blood bath, and I called for such action in May 1992. Instead, the West wasted a year and acquiesced to Serb aggression.

Advocates of action by the European Community or the UN need to face the sobering reality that the decisive choices were once again left to the US. Recognizing this fact, US political leaders should be prepared to move more quickly next time, secure in the knowledge that waiting will probably produce no alternative to US action.

More than a week ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski speculated on "Meet the Press" about the consequences of inaction in Bosnia. If the West did not move boldly, he said, "the international order will be gradually attrited, and the Clinton administration will be marginalized."

On the same program, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, was more blunt: "If we don't act, you're going to see more Bosnias than you've ever contemplated."

At the time, I disagreed. Now the die has been cast. The world is watching. If inaction held its risks, the consequences of failure - of American arms, of American nerve, of American presidential leadership - would be far worse.

The president has made his choice, and we must ensure that he succeeds.

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