Policy and Face: Shifts On the Arms Embargo


BY agreeing to a delay in the lifting of the UN arms embargo on his country, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has bought himself and US President Clinton a respite from political tight spots. But only temporarily.

Speaking Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly, the Bosnian leader called anew for an end to the embargo that has deprived his Muslim-led Army of the heavy weapons it needs to roll back the ``ethnic cleansing'' conquests of the Belgrade-supplied Bosnian Serb army.

But in a new twist, President Izetbegovic said his government was willing to wait six months for the actual implementation of the resolution. Izetbegovic said he would agree to the delay on condition that UN peacekeepers remain in Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb blockade of Sarajevo is lifted immediately, and UN safe areas for Bosnian civilians are expanded.

This policy shift represented a windfall for President Clinton, prompting speculation that it was actually authored in Washington. Izetbegovic, so this thinking goes, accepted for the sake of preserving good relations.

The proposal gave Clinton the opening to shelve his pledge to seek an end to the embargo if the Bosnian Serbs did not accept by Oct. 15 the peace plan drafted by the ``contact group'' of United States, Russian, British, French, and German mediators.

Dropping the deadline narrowly defuses an issue that could have spoiled Clinton's hopes for a tension-free two-day summit this week in Washington with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who opposes the lifting of the embargo. Clinton also averts for now damaging rifts with Washington's European allies, Britain and France, which also oppose ending the UN ban on weapons sales to Sarajevo.

And because the six-month delay was proposed by the Bosnian government itself, Clinton escapes the wrath of the US Congress, which pressured him into setting the Oct. 15 deadline.

Russia, Britain, and France had originally agreed to lift the embargo as a measure of ``last resort'' to force the Bosnian Serbs to drop their rejection of the contact-group peace plan.

Instead, they have reposed their trust in President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the man held most responsible for the war. He says he supports the peace plan and has imposed a blockade of strategic goods on the Bosnian Serbs to force them to accept it. Britain, France, Russia, and other contributors say they will withdraw their UN troops from Bosnia if the embargo is lifted because of the danger of an increase in fighting. They are backed by the UN hierarchy, which began planning a pullout as soon as Clinton set his Oct. 15 deadline.

For Izetbegovic, a six-month delay ensures that the 30,000-strong UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) will remain through a third winter of war, overseeing deliveries of the humanitarian aid on which hundreds of thousands of people depend.

UNPROFOR will also continue protecting 115,000 Muslims trapped in the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica, Gorazde, and Zepa, which the Bosnian Serbs would quickly overrun if UN troops left.

Together with NATO airpower, UNPROFOR will go on enforcing heavy-weapons exclusion zones that halted the Bosnian Serb bombardments of Sarajevo and Gorazde.

Finally, with UNPROFOR protection still guaranteed, the Bosnian government can continue smuggling through the embargo the small, but steady stream of weaponry that has been flowing through breaches in the blockade for months.

But despite all the short-term advantages, Clinton and Izetbegovic will eventually find themselves confronting the very same dilemmas they have just evaded.

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