Despite the clamor in Congress against President Clinton's plan to use U.S. troops to enforce a peace accord in Bosnia, congressional strategists said Tuesday that lawmakers are unlikely to try to stop it.
Clinton reiterated his determination Tuesday, telling reporters that no matter how some lawmakers may feel, the United States "is the leader of NATO; no peace agreement could be fairly implemented without the involvement of NATO, and we cannot walk away from our responsibility to try to end this terrible conflict."
The President's remarks brushed aside protests by key lawmakers--most recently Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)--complaining that the Administration has not been "consulting" Capitol Hill on the issue and demanding more details about what a deployment would include.
A few hours before Clinton spoke, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry publicly rejected the lawmakers' objections, arguing that the Administration has been in almost "constant" contact with Congress. "I don't know what they're talking about," he said.
The issue has been heating up over the last several days as lawmakers from both parties have scrambled to put their skepticism about U.S. military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina--and in some cases their outright opposition to it--on the public record.
Even Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and a frequent ally of the President, joined the chorus on Tuesday. "I think the President is going to have a pretty heavy burden of persuasion," he told Fox "Morning News."
But congressional strategists said that, despite threats from some lawmakers, neither house is likely to pass a resolution that either prevents the President from sending U.S. soldiers to help North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces or restricts the total number of U.S. ground troops that can be deployed.
Rather, they said, what the lawmakers are trying to do is raise enough warning flags now so that they can cover themselves politically and later distance themselves from the Administration if the military venture backfires and U.S. soldiers are killed.
That assessment is shared by senior advisers to the President. "Our own thinking is that when all is said and done, [Congress] will not try to block the deployment of U.S. troops as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force," said one key official.
Although the Administration has committed itself to sending as many as 25,000 U.S. ground troops to bolster NATO forces if a peace accord is signed, the Pentagon says it will not be able to determine the size and makeup of such a contingent until the terms of the pact are firm.
Allied military planners have begun devising options to consider once a peace agreement has been negotiated. Although some say that the operation now could get by with as few as 8,000 U.S. troops, the Pentagon wants to send the full 25,000 to provide U.S. soldiers with more protection.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters Tuesday that while planning still is incomplete, intentions are for the U.S. force--along with as many as 25,000 additional ground troops from other NATO countries--to remain in Bosnia for up to a year.
Political analysts said the current round of charges and countercharges is typical of Congress' approach to any military intervention. Lawmakers made similar demands just before the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and before last year's U.S. intervention in Haiti.
But with only a few exceptions, all of the lawmakers who have been questioning the proposed deployment have carefully limited their demands to insisting that Clinton "consult" more with Congress--a Capitol Hill euphemism for making sure the lawmakers are not caught unawares.
What senators and representatives want most is for the Administration to develop a military plan for the operation and begin briefing members of Congress so that lawmakers can satisfy themselves that the venture is viable and can feel comfortable in reassuring their constituents of that.
Particularly important to lawmakers is how long U.S. troops are likely to remain in Bosnia and what sort of "exit strategy" the Administration has worked out to pull them out safely once the mission is over. Lawmakers also do not want U.S. troops under United Nations command.
McCurry said Tuesday that the President "is looking for an opportunity" to nail down such details "at an early moment," but the Pentagon said that the military planning will not be completed for weeks. And lawmakers warned that, if Clinton delays too long, Congress may become more impatient.
Dole issued a statement shortly after the President's comments Tuesday calling on key congressional committees to conduct "extensive" hearings on the question of sending U.S. troops to Bosnia, but he stopped short of calling for any new legislation.
While there currently is no formal move to try to tie the President's hands legislatively, "I don't think you can rule that out," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a member of the House National Security Committee. "It could turn very ugly very quickly."