As Bihac Falls, So Does US Policy Of Supporting Bosnian Muslims

RESIGNED to make a virtue of necessity, the Clinton administration has opted for diplomatic concessions instead of force to try to bring peace to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For months, the administration has banked on the use of NATO air power to persuade Bosnia's Serbian minority to accept a Western peace plan. The implied goal was to preserve a unitary Bosnian state, divided into Serbian and Bosnian spheres of influence.

But with Serbian troops set to overrun a United Nations ``safe area'' around the northwestern town of Bihac, the futility of Western containment efforts has become inescapably clear.

White House chief of staff Leon Panetta reflected administration frustration when he told reporters this week there's ``no use in continuing the kind of carnage going on there.''

The United States still wants Bosnian Serbs to disgorge some of the territory they have already seized from the Muslim-led Bosnian government and accept a 50-50 partition plan. In return, the Western powers would sanction new constitutional arrangements that would allow the Serbs to join a confederation with Serbia.

The sudden switch in US policy reflects the belated recognition that with no troops on the ground in Bosnia, the US is not in a credible position to call for the greater use of force against Bosnian Serbs.

The concessions were also timed to buttress the Western alliance as President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepare to travel to Europe for meetings of NATO and the 53-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, starting this week.

On Dec. 3, Mr. Christopher will meet with the ``contact group'' on Bosnia - the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and the US - which drafted the Western peace plan.

``This is not the last chance but if they don't pull it together this time it's going to be a lot harder to get control of the situation, at least in the short term,'' says a US diplomat posted in Europe.

A doleful US Defense Secretary William Perry all but acknowledged last weekend that international efforts to prevent Bihac from falling into Serbian hands were lost, setting the stage for high-level White House consultations on Bosnia on Nov. 28, when the change in policy was approved.

Senate majority leader-to-be Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, meanwhile, has called for the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and for supplying Bosnia's Muslim-led government with US arms.

Mr. Dole is now in Europe to meet with British and NATO officials. He recently blamed the British and French for a ``complete breakdown'' of NATO over Bosnia. Dole's arrival in Europe has been greeted with a hail of diplomatic gunfire.

Ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister John Major Nov. 28, Dole's weekend charge that Britain had wanted to do ``absolutely nothing'' in Bosnia was attacked by British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind as ``disgraceful.''

Ramming home British government anger, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said it was a ``cruel illusion'' for Dole to suggest that airstrikes could end the war in the former Yugoslavia.

British ministers said privately that Dole's comments appeared to throw the future of the NATO alliance into question and raised doubts about America's long-term commitment to the defense of Europe. ``This is the worst transatlantic row since Suez,'' a senior minister said as Dole prepared to meet Mr. Major for informal talks. In 1956, the US condemned Britain and France for invading Egypt and attempting to seize the Suez Canal. It took several years for relations between Washington and London and Paris to be repaired.

The European powers have resented the fact that the Clinton and Bush administrations have moralized about Bosnia while standing on the sidelines. Between them, Britain and France have 10,000 troops in Bosnia who could be placed in harm's way if arms begin to flow from the US, thus widening the Bosnian war.

A wider war, in turn, could cause ethnic tensions in Macedonia and Kosovo to explode, European leaders warn.

The European powers were also angered when, prodded by Congress, Mr. Clinton instructed the Pentagon earlier this month to stop enforcing the embargo. But a State Department official said last week that the administration will seek to hold the line against possible efforts by the new Congress to go one step further by actually allowing arms to be sent to the Bosnian government.

``I would be very surprised if the president would acquiesce in the unilateral lifting of the arms embargo,'' said the official.

The official said Clinton also stands by an earlier pledge to provide US forces to guarantee the peace if the Bosnian Serbs join the Muslim-led Bosnian government in approving the five-power peace plan. ``The basic political commitment remains,'' he said.

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