Bosnia Troop Plan Proves Tough Sell In GOP Congress

EVEN as it seeks to make peace among warring parties in Bosnia, the Clinton administration is fighting a rear-guard action of its own against United States lawmakers. Not only has President Clinton's plan to dispatch US troops to secure a Bosnian peace settlement driven a wedge between the White House and Congress, it has also split Republicans within Congress.

''The members are angry at [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich'' for opposing a hard-line GOP stance against deploying US peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, says one Republican congressman. ''Our response is to prevent funding for any operation that puts Americans' lives at risk.''

Clinton has pledged to contribute up to 25,000 US troops to a NATO peacekeeping force of 60,000 if a peace agreement is reached. If the US does not participate, NATO will not participate, and without NATO there will be no peace, Clinton says.

House Republican leaders backed a nonbinding resolution, passed Monday, that warned Clinton not to offer US troops as a precondition to a peace agreement.

But Republican members were poised yesterday - with or without the GOP leadership - to force a floor vote on a binding resolution to bar funding for any US operation in Bosnia involving ground troops.

Asked what message Monday's vote sends to the Balkan leaders gathered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, a senior Clinton administration official says ''it could lead the parties to wonder whether Congress will support peace.''

But the official acknowledges that the administration has some explaining to do to a skeptical Congress: ''There is real anxiety up there and questions to answer.''

House members voice concern that since the administration led the charge for NATO airstrikes on Bosnian Serb targets last summer, and since Clinton has pledged to arm and train Bosnian Muslims if a peace agreement is reached, US troops might not be seen as a neutral force by the warring parties. They note that taking sides in Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s cost the lives of hundreds of US marines who were part of a peacekeeping force.

LAWMAKERS say the purpose of Monday's resolution was to put the administration on notice that ''Bill Clinton was premature to commit ground troops without a clear definition of deployment terms and conditions on the ground,'' says Rep. Steve Buyer (R) of Indiana.

Members on both sides of the aisle were angered when Clinton dismissed Monday's resolution out of hand. They say Congress will not consider supporting ground troops unless the administration provides a clearer explanation of deployment plans, including duration, exit strategies, and rules of engagement. Lawmakers also expect Clinton to spell out the risks involved for US troops.

Congress has stayed in the background through most of the four-year Balkan crisis. That changed last summer when the House and Senate approved resolutions - which Clinton vetoed - calling on the US to exempt Bosnia from a three-year UN arms embargo.

The goal was to equalize the military balance between the Bosnian government and better-armed Bosnian Serb forces. But presidential politics also played a role as GOP leaders sought to put their own mark on Bosnia policy.

Bosnia will be a much harder sell for Clinton than the Gulf war was for President Bush. Mr. Bush began the buildup of US forces in the Gulf before the war began and essentially presented Congress with a fait accompli in a theater where US interests - oil - were clear.

Clinton will be seeking prior approval for deployments in a region where US interests are harder to define.

''The popular feeling about Bosnia is very negative and a peace agreement will not overcome the dangers people feel will occur in Bosnia,'' says Stephen Weissman, a former House Foreign Affairs Committee staff member and author of a new book on Congress and foreign policy.

The issue poses political risks for both sides. If Clinton presses on with US deployments in the face of congressional and public opposition, and if US casualties are incurred in Bosnia, he will hand the Republicans a potent election-year issue.

On the other hand, if Congress blocks troop deployments and a promising peace agreement collapses as a result, Republicans will pay the price.

''In light of the fact that the House communicated deep misgivings on ground troops, the best action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is to lower the volume,'' says Rep. Paul McHale (D) of Pennsylvania, one of the co-authors of Monday's resolution.

''I don't want to see more radical elements of Congress bind presidential authority.''

If lawmakers do block US troop deployments or force conditions on the president, the postwar era of congressional deference to the president on foreign-policy matters - with notable exceptions including Vietnam - could be over, notes Mr. Weissman. ''If Congress goes that far, it will be the beginning of a watershed,'' he says.

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