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Senate to Vote Today to Lift Arms Embargo against Bosnia

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

The Senate moved Tuesday toward approval of legislation to lift the embargo on arms shipments to the Muslim-led government of Bosnia in its most serious challenge so far to President Clinton's conduct of foreign policy.

It plans to vote on the bill Wednesday.

As the Senate resumed debate on the proposal, Clinton - in a final appeal his aides agreed was likely to change few votes - warned that lifting the embargo would be a "futile effort to find an easy fix" and could wind up increasing rather than decreasing American involvement in the bloody Balkans conflict.

After an appearance before Senate Democrats, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he could see "a great deal of pressure" on the United States to get more deeply involved if a lifting of the embargo provokes an attack by rebel Bosnian Serbs that overran the Bosnian government. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said he could see a "humanitarian catastrophe" in Bosnia.

The administration's case against the proposal was rejected by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., its principal sponsor and front-runner for the Republican nomination to challenge Clinton in next year's election.

Arguing there was nothing new in Clinton's appeal, Dole said the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has failed and that the United States has "an obligation to the Bosnian people and to our principles to allow a U.N. member state, the victim of aggression, defend itself."

Already "our fingerprints are all over this conflict we cannot escape responsibility," he said. He said the vote was more about ideals than politics. "It's not just about Bosnia. It's a vote about America and what we stand for - our humanity and our principles," Dole argued.

In response, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., said a vote to lift the embargo would amount to an "epitaph for Bosnia: we wish you good luck and have a nice war." The United States should give NATO a chance to strengthen its response to Serb aggression "before we step out with an arrogant club" to smash its chances, Kerry added.

The debate - which was begun and then suspended last week at the administration's request to avoid disrupting a weekend conference of NATO allies on Bosnia - was an echo of countless earlier Senate arguments that have been leading up to the pending vote.

Republicans were joined by Democrats in criticizing U.S. policy but also acknowledged it dated to the administration of President Bush, which, Dole noted, gave the initial "green light" for Serb aggression. The arms embargo, against all warring parties in the former Yugoslavia, was adopted by a unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council in September 1991.

It is both "illegal" and "immoral" for the United States to deny a legitimate government the right to defend itself against aggression and policies of "genocide" by the Serbs, argued Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., cosponsor with Dole of the legislation, in summing up the argument for the bill. "There is one thing we cannot do, and that is nothing," added Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The administration has argued that, although a vote to lift the embargo does not obligate the United States to send arms to the Bosnian government, it would impose a moral obligation to help it. At the same time, administration officials have said, NATO allies Britain and France - both of whom have troops on the ground in Bosnia as part of the U.N. force - oppose its lifting because they fear it would lead to an upsurge in the fighting and endanger their own peacekeepers.

In Tuesday's Senate debate, opponents of the bill repeated themes raised by Clinton, Christopher and Perry. It "threatens to Americanize the conflict," argued Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. First the U.S. will provide trainers, then intelligence, then advisers, and soon "we will have chosen a well-traveled path - a path that in our own past has led to places like Vietnam and Nicaragua," he added. To lift the embargo would "invite NATO to walk away from Bosnia making an appalling situation even worse," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

The Dole-Lieberman bill - similar to a proposal approved earlier by the House - would require the president to lift the embargo only after a withdrawal of all U.N. peacekeeping forces from Bosnia, or within 12 weeks after a request from the Bosnian government for withdrawal of the peacekeepers.