President Clinton declined Thursday to embrace a proposal by his top advisers that he limit any U.S. troop deployment in Bosnia to one year, saying that he will not commit himself until a new peace accord is completed.
"Our commanders believe we can complete our mission in a year," he said, but "before I make that pledge to the American people, I want to know what the peace agreement is finally and . . . have a very high level of confidence that I can make that commitment and keep it."
The President's remarks appeared designed to provide him with some political leeway on the issue after Congress' lukewarm reception this week to his plans for deploying U.S. ground forces.
Clinton also dismissed suggestions that Congress will follow some Republicans and block him from sending peacekeepers.
"I believe in the end the Congress will support this operation," he said at a press conference Thursday.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry has proposed a one-year time limit on the peacekeeping mission to assuage Congress' concerns that U.S. troops might become mired in Bosnia. However, the idea has drawn fire from critics who say it could encourage rebel Bosnian Serbs to stall in complying with any peace agreement.
At allied headquarters in Belgium on Thursday, Russian and allied officials failed to narrow their differences on a second central issue in the peacekeeping planning--how to bring the Russian military into an operation led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Although Moscow is loath to place its troops under NATO command, allied officials remain adamant that NATO's chain of command cannot be broken.
Although NATO officials called Thursday's initial meeting on the issue "a good start," Russia's senior representative at the session, Ambassador to Belgium Vitaly I. Churkin, left little doubt that the two sides remain far apart.
NATO agreed to enforce any Balkan peace settlement on the condition that the operation be led by the alliance and all participating forces come under a single command structure headed by NATO's southern commander, now U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith.
But Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has declared flatly that he will not place Russian forces under NATO command. Instead, Moscow wants to establish an international executive committee made up of representatives from NATO, the United Nations and other countries.
Washington has taken a hard line against giving up NATO control of the operation. Perry told reporters Thursday that, despite Russian demands, "there will be no nations in the [peacekeeping] force outside of NATO command and control."
The issue has taken on new urgency because of the hard-line stances on both sides and the approaching round of Bosnian peace talks, scheduled to be held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, beginning Oct. 31.
At the same time, both sides seemed determined to bridge the gap. "Russian participation is very important," Churkin said. "A format must be found to allow Russia to participate to the extent that it can. . . . The dialogue must continue."
Moscow wants to be involved in the Bosnian peace mission to preserve its status as a major global power. NATO also wants Russian participation because it would provide added manpower and legitimacy to the peace force.
The United States has proposed that Moscow send mainly engineering units that could help with construction and mine-clearing. But so far the Russians have not gone along. Russia also wants to deploy about 20,000 troops in Bosnia--10 times the number acceptable to NATO.
In Washington, Perry also lashed back at lawmakers for not "thinking in terms of real alternatives" on Bosnia. "The real alternative is the war in Bosnia continuing," he said. "Many of the congressmen were preferring to postulate alternatives which are not real."
The exchange followed a late-Wednesday briefing of Clinton by U.S. Gen. George A. Joulwan, the supreme commander of NATO forces, on plans for the Bosnian peacekeeping operation. Aides said that Clinton, who has been briefed often as the plans have developed, voiced no major objections.
Administration officials sought later to play down Clinton's refusal to commit to the one-year time limit for the troop deployment, saying it did not mean that he was rejecting the idea.
And Clinton himself told reporters that "it looks like we're talking about a commitment . . . in the range of a year." But he said he wanted to see the details of any new peace accord before making such a pledge.
Pine reported from Washington and Marshall from Brussels.