Clinton Muses Publicly About Balkans Choices : Bosnia war: Critics--and some aides--charge that he is conveying an image of indecisiveness.


Frustrated by his allies’ objections to military action in Bosnia-Herzegovina, President Clinton is wrestling again with the issue of how to stop the war in Bosnia. But this time, in an unusual move for a chief executive, he is doing much of his deliberating in public.

Clinton still hopes to persuade Britain, France and other nations to support his proposal to lift the international arms embargo on Bosnia and launch air strikes against Serbian military positions there, aides said.

But he also says he might seek air strikes alone, if the allies would go along with that. He has mused publicly about sending U.S. troops to Macedonia, a separate republic south of the war zone. And he suggested in an interview published today that he might even consider sending ground troops to Bosnia--an idea he has flatly rejected in the past--if it would stop attacks on civilians.


“I’m not there yet,” Clinton told the Washington Post when asked about a French request for U.S. ground troops to help guard the U.N. sanctuaries for Muslim civilians in Bosnia. But he added: “The idea of stopping ‘ethnic cleansing’ and stopping the violence is, to me, the most compelling argument for the safe havens.”

Clinton also said he is not willing to defy the allies over Bosnia because he needs their support on other economic and diplomatic issues.

“I think to whatever extent we can achieve a genuine consensus we should,” he said. “We have a lot of other issues at stake with the Europeans . . . and the way we handle this and the way it resonates will affect all that.”

The President’s public deliberations already have led critics--and some of his own aides--to worry that he is conveying an image of indecisiveness.

“The debate is still going on inside the Oval Office,” one Administration official said. “We don’t have a settled policy yet.”

Clinton’s inability to choose a clear course on Bosnia stems partly from the fact that, as even his critics acknowledge, the issue offers “no good options” for U.S. action. But the image of uncertainty has been heightened by some of the President’s actions, including his decision to send Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Europe last week to explore the allies’ views without a strong U.S. policy in place.


Clinton’s personal style has played a part as well. As governor of Arkansas, he deliberated almost endlessly over difficult issues--and occasionally reversed course even after a decision was made.

In this case, Clinton has held fast to the basic policy that he decided on two weeks ago--seeking to lift the arms embargo and launch air strikes to enable Bosnian Muslims to stop the military advance of the Bosnian Serbs--despite the objections of his European allies.

The President says he still hopes to persuade the Europeans to change their minds. But if the allies continue to balk at lifting the arms embargo, Clinton may decide to go ahead with air strikes alone, officials said.

At the same time, Clinton is looking anew at ways to keep the peace in two multiethnic areas outside Bosnia: Kosovo, which is part of Serbia, and newly independent Macedonia to the south.

Clinton said this week that he is considering sending troops to Macedonia to help deter any foreign invasion of the republic. And officials said they are renewing U.S. warnings to Serbia against military action in Kosovo, a province populated largely by ethnic Albanians.

Senior officials said bolstering Macedonia’s security has long been one of the Administration’s aims, although it was never a focus of public statements until this week.


Sending American forces to Macedonia might also blunt British and French complaints that the United States has left the dangerous roles to them.

“If there was any question about the willingness for us to put people on the ground, this should take care of it,” a White House official said.

To the embarrassment of some U.S. officials, that leaves Clinton about where President George Bush was on Bosnia six months ago--when candidate Clinton was criticizing him for inaction.

“It’s deja vu all over again,” a State Department official said. “Things like lifting the arms embargo and putting troops into Macedonia are floated as if they were new ideas . . . but Bush proposed them last year.”

“They’re not too far from where we were,” agreed former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who served under Bush. “But there is a big difference. . . . The Clinton Administration really wants to do something in Bosnia. The Bush Administration, from the beginning, saw it as a swamp.

“They have gone much further in their rhetoric,” he added. “Clinton’s rhetoric has gotten to a point where I don’t believe he can afford not to act.”


Clinton hopes that the Europeans may reconsider their objections to air strikes if, as expected, the Bosnian Serbs reject the U.N. peace plan in a referendum scheduled this weekend.

But U.N. officials said the Europeans may prefer to wait several more weeks to see whether the president of neighboring Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, can succeed in pressuring the Bosnian Serbs to sign the plan, produced by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen. Owen plans to go to Europe next week to argue for a further delay, the officials said.

On Thursday, Russia publicly praised Milosevic for supporting the U.N. peace plan. Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, who has opposed military action, said he would push for lifting international sanctions against Serbia if it kept up pressure on the Bosnian Serbs.

Meanwhile, the Administration is moving forward with plans for U.S. participation in an existing multinational observer force in Macedonia, officials said. The force now consists of 750 troops from Scandinavian countries.

But the Administration has not yet discussed the idea in any depth with either Macedonia or its partners on the U.N. Security Council, officials said. Macedonia’s foreign minister, Spevo Crevenkouski, said he first learned of the U.S. proposal by reading about it in the Wall Street Journal.

Times staff writers Stanley Meisler, at the U.N., and Richard Boudreaux, in Moscow, contributed to this story.