Just two days after President Clinton went on worldwide television to defend his conduct of foreign policy, the Senate appeared ready Thursday to rebuke him over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A number of Democrats said they will support legislation to lift the Bosnian arms embargo unilaterally, despite the Clinton Administration's insistence that it cannot break ranks with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and take such a major step on its own.
With the issue now expected to come to a head as early as today, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) sought support for an alternative that would allow restive Democrats to express their growing unease over Bosnia without challenging the Administration.
But several senior Democrats said they still plan to back a bill sponsored by Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to end U.S. participation in the embargo regardless of opposition by Britain, France and other NATO member nations that have peacekeeping troops in Bosnia.
Mitchell's alternative, which would merely instruct Clinton to seek allied consent to supply arms to Bosnia's Muslim-led government, "is not going to be enough for me or a lot of other Democrats to support," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, added: "The majority is not going to be satisfied with anything less than the lifting of the embargo."
At least 12 Democrats have indicated that they will vote for the GOP measure, which would mandate an end to U.S. compliance with the U.N.-imposed embargo so Bosnia's lightly armed government forces could obtain antitank weapons and other armaments they need. All but a handful of Republicans are expected to support it.
But even if the measure passes the Senate, it is considered unlikely to win approval in the House.
Mitchell argued that forcing Clinton to lift the embargo will jeopardize the United States' relations with the United Nations, NATO allies and Russia. His plan, crafted in cooperation with the Administration, is similar to a non-binding resolution adopted by the Senate last January during the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo.
The different approaches show that the Senate remains as deeply divided as it was in January over what the U.S. role in Bosnia should be and whether, by action or inaction, the United States is running the risk of becoming enmeshed in another Vietnam or closing its eyes to another Holocaust.
But this time, two subtle but significant differences are propelling the debate.
The first is an emerging consensus that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has failed and that it is time, in Lieberman's words, "to get out of the way" and give the Bosnian Muslims a chance to defend themselves.
Still fearful of air strikes or other military action that could drag the United States into a ground war in Bosnia, yet frustrated and embarrassed by their own inaction in the face of continued Serbian defiance, more lawmakers now see an end to the arms embargo as a low-cost way of doing something.
"Ending the embargo allows a lot of people to go home and say they have done something--but not something that is going to come back and haunt them politically when Americans are killed or U.S. planes are shot down," Leahy said.
The second significant development is a further erosion of confidence in Clinton's handling of foreign affairs.
Defending his handling of these issues in an internationally televised meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday, Clinton conceded that he initially had underestimated the difficulties of achieving an allied consensus on Bosnia. He said he had done "the best I could" by seeking to confront rather than avoid difficult problems.