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Clinton Meets With Advisers to Decide on a New Bosnia Policy

By John M. Broder
and Doyle McManus

Los Angeles Times


President Clinton, torn between painful choices on what to do about the slaughter in Bosnia, summoned senior foreign and military advisers to the White House on Thursday for continuing consultations on the possible use of U.S. military force against Serbia.

A decision on a new Bosnia policy is expected Saturday, after a final White House meeting with advisers. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will then fly to European capitals to explain the policy to allied leaders and seek their support.

Clinton is determined to take a more aggressive role in seeking to end the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, but the European allies as well as a majority of the top brass in the Pentagon are warning him that the Balkans present an inescapable political and military morass.

Clinton is agonizing over the decision, aides say, knowing that a wrong move could engulf his young administration in a deadly and distracting quagmire.

"Everybody agrees that there is no clear, good course of action," said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "There are costs and risks with every decision."

However, she added, "The one thing that's clear is the president firmly believes we must take more action to stop ethnic cleansing and to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia."

Clinton met late Thursday with Christopher, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell and other military leaders. An enlarged decision-making body known as the Principals Group, which includes those officials plus Vice President Al Gore, national security adviser Anthony Lake and U.N. envoy Madeleine Albright, is to meet Saturday morning.

Powell emerged from Thursday's meeting to say that Clinton and the military leaders had discussed a range of options and that the only possibility excluded from consideration was the use of American ground forces.

"I would just characterize it as a full discussion of a wide range of military options as well as consideration of the current diplomatic situation," Powell told reporters.

He said "we haven't ruled anything off the table" other than the deployment of ground troops.

Clinton insists the new policy will include multilateral participation, but there is no assurance he can secure allied acquiescence in a controversial policy that may include arming the Bosnian Muslims or mounting air strikes against Serbian artillery emplacements.

The other principal option under consideration in Washington is the use of military force to establish "safe havens" for Bosnians fleeing the factional bloodshed.

Clinton is involved in intensive consultations with Congress and U.N. allies over his future course because virtually any action would require congressional or U.N. approval. He has also spoken with former President Nixon and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, aides said.

Clinton would need the United Nations' assent to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. In 1991, the United Nations imposed an embargo on weapons sales to all parties in the Yugoslav civil war, crippling the Bosnian fighters but having little effect on the Serbs because they control the weapons stores of the former Yugoslav army.

And if Clinton were send U.S. warplanes to strike Serbian forces, he likely would be compelled to seek congressional approval under the War Powers Act, which requires a vote in Congress on any large or protracted deployment of U.S. forces overseas. Ninety-one House members sent Clinton a letter Thursday urging him to comply with the law if he decides to dispatch U.S. troops or aircraft for combat in the Balkans.

Former Presidents Reagan and Bush ignored the War Powers resolution in numerous military operations, saying it was an unconstitutional infringement on executive authority.

But White House communications director George Stephanopoulos said that Clinton was committed -- at least in theory -- to observing the letter and spirit of the War Powers Act.

After a decision is reached, Stephanopoulos said, Clinton would "go before the American people and explain what he wants to do and why he wants to do it. ... One of the lessons obviously of Vietnam and other conflicts is that you need the sustained support of the American people in order to have a successful venture."

Securing European support may prove even more difficult than persuading the American public that military action is justified.

Britain, France and Canada all repeated their opposition to lifting the arms embargo, but said that they were willing to discuss other measures with the United States.

Some foreign officials said that their governments were reluctant to back allied air strikes in Bosnia or Serbia -- but were willing to discuss the option.

A major concern of all three governments was that any tougher action would endanger the British, French, Canadian and Spanish troops carrying out U.N. peacekeeping and relief missions on the ground.

"We are prepared to support stronger action to bring the Serbs to the table," a senior Canadian official said. "But our government is still opposed to lifting the arms embargo."