US Election Keeps Clinton Cautious On Bosnia Moves

The apprehension of the White House about the safety of US troops in Bosnia is perhaps best seen in the on-the-ground orders that American soldiers must follow.

While British and French troops enjoy the summer sun in light fatigues in largely safe Bosnia, US troops must swelter in helmets and flak jackets, carry weapons at all times, and travel off base only in large convoys with radio back-up.

The orders are typical of what critics say is a US policy more concerned with avoiding casualties than bringing long-term peace to the former Yugoslavia. This policy, critics say, is driven in part by President Clinton, wanting to avoid any troop losses during his reelection campaign.

Despite bold intentions to deploy troops to enforce the 1995 Dayton peace accords, the US has consistently preferred diplomatic compromises over the use of force to address still-unresolved and critical problems in Bosnia.

Despite half-successful strong-arm tactics by US envoy Richard Holbrooke last week, two key goals of the Dayton accords remain unmet: neutralizing indicted war criminals and creating adequate condtions for fair elections.

"Clinton is wary that incurring US casualties in Bosnia will play into Republican hands," says an analyst with the UN High Representative's office in Sarajevo. "Republicans will attack him for having placed US forces in a country where few Americans think they have any strategic interests."

The US has consistently said the conditions of Dayton are crucial for achieving lasting peace. But US commanders of NATO-led forces in Bosnia have just as consistently said hunting war criminals is not their job.

Even as war-crimes investigators unearth fresh evidence daily of Serb massacres of Muslims around the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, critics charge that the Clinton administration has not pushed to bring to justice those thought responsible: Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Mr. Holbrooke's trip last week secured the removal from power of Mr. Karadzic. But because Karadzic will remain in the town of Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital, it is widely assumed that he will continue to bolster Bosnian Serb policies of ethnic division.

Holbrooke admits his breakthrough was incomplete and "falls short of our goals." It was secured after 10 hours of "acrimonious" talks with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who signed the Dayton accord on behalf of Bosnian Serbs. But bringing the two high-profile officials to the tribunal, Holbrooke said, would be "a long and bumpy road."

Holbrooke's successor as envoy, Undersecretary of State John Kornblum, began a mission to the region July 23 saying that he would "push for the next step."

But critics argue that US diplomacy has not been sufficient. "What else could be done?" a senior UN official asks rhetorically. "They could have snatched Karadzic and taken him to The Hague," where he would be tried by the UN War Crimes Tribunal.

But the risks of such an operation are great. For months NATO commanders have mulled over plans to grab Karadzic, officials say, but concern over a widespread Serb backlash - including threats from Serb officers to kidnap and attack NATO soldiers - has kept them in check.

Until Holbrooke's mission, the result was open defiance by Karadzic; growing pressure from the UN War Crimes Tribunal to arrest Karadzic and General Mladic; and erosion of the Dayton accord, which requires countrywide elections - now slated for Sept. 14 - within three months.

And compounding American reluctance to order a military snatch operation are divisions with European allies and varied assessments of how the fallout could damage regional peace.

US officials have insisted that the elections will go ahead - in keeping with US plans to withdraw by the end of the year - even though few of the conditions required to ensure their success have been met. Refugees are not returning to their homes, freedom of the press is rare, and freedom of movement does not exist.

Even the outgoing US commander of the 60,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force is dubious about the elections' success. "If the Sept. 14 elections reflect what we see on the ground today, the results will be a furtherance of two separate entities, not a convergence of ideals and institutions," Admiral Leighton Smith warns.

Though the Dayton accord, along with the Mideast peace process, been a foreign-policy feather in the Clinton administration's cap, the US military deployment since last December has been carried out with utmost caution - a caution based partly on memories of the disastrous mission in Somalia, where US troops were killed by angry mobs.

This caution is in sharp contrast to bold steps now under way, at American insistence, to re-arm and train the Bosnian Army.

The policy is universally criticized by European allies who see it as throwing fuel onto a burning fire.

Weaponry to be provided by the US includes 45 tanks, 840 anti-tank weapons, helicopters, and more than 45,000 assault rifles - the same instruments of war with which Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims have slaughtered each other and destroyed their country for four years.

So for some, US reluctance to pursue war criminals is frustrating. "Clinton is enjoying a solid 15-point lead over Dole," said a senior American peacekeeping official in Sarajevo. "He could afford to lose a few American soldiers in a raid to nab Karadzic."

Bringing the accused before the court would please the Tribunal and in the long run, officials say, could help ensure a future stable peace in Bosnia.

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