The Halting Quest for Bosnia Peace : Problems at talks and in Congress for Clinton

The quest for a political settlement of the war in Bosnia is beginning to border on the bizarre. For two weeks, the presidents of three sovereign European nations have been holed up at an Ohio air base as U.S. mediators move among them looking for hints of compromise. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher took up the task, meeting separately with the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian presidents. But the movement that seemed apparent when the Europeans arrived in Middle America has all but evaporated. Christopher found himself playing to a tough audience. “We do not anticipate a resolution of all the major issues today,” his spokesman said. Nor any time soon, he could have added.

LITTLE GAIN: The diplomatically herculean efforts of Assistant Secretary Richard C. Holbrooke in grinding out a cease-fire offered promise when the three leaders arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton at the end of October. But since then there has been little to inspire hope except for the continuing presence of Presidents Franco Tudjman of Croatia, Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Slobodan Milo- sevic of Serbia.

Tudjman and Milosevic, leaders of the two major countries of the former Yugoslavian federation, are giving nothing to Izetbegovic. The Bosnian has little to bargain with but the goodwill of the Western powers. Nevertheless, half a world from the presidents’ homelands, the talks press on. And all the while the clock is ticking on the 60-day cease-fire that took hold Oct. 5.

For better or worse, Bosnia is the foreign policy issue on which President Clinton has chosen to put his stamp. The cease-fire was a remarkable achievement. Peace will be harder.


DOMESTIC BATTLE: The White House remains committed. For one thing, the President wants a foreign policy victory as he nears an election year. Some of the prime obstacles before Clinton are popping up on the home front. In a letter delivered Tuesday to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the President said the Administration intends to contribute up to $600 million toward an international rebuilding effort in Bosnia should a peace be achieved. Earlier he said the United States will contribute 20,000 or more soldiers to a peace force, at an estimated one-year cost of $1.5 billion, and Clinton asked for congressional support. On Monday, the White House received a letter from GOP leaders saying congressional support for sending Americans to Bosnia was virtually nil. Clinton’s letter to Gingrich made mention of “my constitutional prerogatives.”

So while the truce is holding in Bosnia, the battle has yet to begin in the U.S. Congress. Both sides are digging in. The White House will have to nail down each aspect of its Bosnia policy as it moves ahead. In an election year it will find any misplayed card costly.

We urge the utmost caution. A firm resolution must be found in Ohio, or at a follow-up conference in Paris, before American soldiers are sent to the Balkans.