While the war raged in Bosnia, the world waited for Bill Clinton. He had promised a bolder policy than that of his predecessor. As a candidate, he floated the idea of arming the underequipped Bosnians and bombarding Serb artillery. As president, he backed away from a U.N.-European Community peace plan, sponsored by Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, that ratified "ethnic cleansing" by failing to roll back most Serb land grabs. Clinton's doubts encouraged the Bosnians not to endorse the talks. The question wasn't whether America would step into the Balkan crisis, but how.
Instead, Clinton ducked the military challenge and decided to give peace another chance. After first panning the VanceOwen plan, Secretary of State Warren Christopher co-opted it. He named Reginald Bartholomew-the U.S. ambassador to NATO who proved a tough negotiator in Spain, Greece and Lebanon-as special envoy to the peace talks. The Bosnians would receive stepped-up humanitarian aid, but no guns. The Serbs could expect tightened sanctions and the threat of a war-crimes tribunal-but not bombs for now. U.S. intervention would be used later to enforce what Christopher called "an agreement that is acceptable to all parties." Given the intensity of ethnic hatred in the Balkans, such an agreement seems unlikely. As if to emphasize the point, the Serbs conducted new waves of ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia; the Muslims mounted an assault on Serbs in the Sarajevan suburbs.
What caused the United States to turn from tiger to tabby in less than two weeks? A young president, filled with moral indignation, was reined in by more cautious and experienced advisers and by international pressure. In their first test, Clinton's foreign-policy aides worked as a team-with Christopher very much in charge. Defense Secretary Les Aspin returned from one meeting and told his people, "Christopher's the 800-pound gorilla on this one, guys." In the end, Clinton chose to defer principle for the sake of consensus. "If we operate with the support ... of allies, we can do a lot of things at an acceptably low cost of life," he told a televised town meeting last week. Not all allies were impressed. "This is a far cry from George Bush's 'This will not stand,'" complained an Arab diplomat in Washington. "The Serbs aren't going to back off unless they understand they're going to be hit with force." What the president didn't tell the nation was that he was leaving open several options-military as well as diplomatic. "We haven't closed the door to anything," said a senior Clinton official.
The president had been prepared to take more forceful steps. But, say officials involved in shaping the Bosnian initiative, Christopher, Aspin and national-security adviser Anthony Lake persuaded him to use muscular diplomacy." While foreign military experts have cited slight gains by guerrillas in eastern Bosnia, Clinton's advisers concluded that arming the Muslims was unlikely to help them and would require breaking the U.N. embargo alone. Storming Sarajevo involved too costly a commitment at this point, while bombing Serb artillery, given the terrain and cover, would accomplish little. Taking out strategic assets in Serbia might activate the Yugoslav Army. Besides, the political costs of acting without allies were deemed too great.
That left the Vance-Owen plan. While complaining about how the Bosnians were getting the short end, Clinton was also swayed by Christopher's argument that Britain, France and Russia were not about to give up on the proposal. The administration began to change its mind about the map, which carved Bosnia into 10 ethnically controlled provinces; after months of brutal civil war, they reasoned, different ethnic groups probably didn't want to live cheek by jowl again. "Obviously we can't return to the status quo ante," says a senior Clinton official. In effect, the president has joined the EC in aborting the dream of an independent, pluralistic Bosnia-as well as the hope of reversing ethnic cleansing.
To gain leverage, Clinton traded away the right to take unilateral action. "The basic decision was if we are to have any influence on the Vance-Owen process, we have to ante up to get into the game," says a senior official. The price of admission was the promise to help enforce an agreedupon settlement. The Pentagon signed off on sending up to 10,000 U.S. troops as part of a 40,000-man NATO contingent under U.N. auspices. Meanwhile, says another official, "We've made it clear that we are exploring ways of expanding the humanitarian effort. I don't think anyone believes that's possible without some commitment of U.S. force." That could include logistics and communications specialists on the ground, and air support to protect convoys. (A team to be dispatched this week to Bosnia will study the relief situation.) In return, the administration hopes to win U.N. Security Council enforcement of the no-fly zone. It sent new envoy Bartholomew to Moscow last week to see if Boris Yeltsin could persuade Serbia to negotiate in good faith. But Russian hardliners are pushing a resolution to ease the sanctions against their Slavic brethren.
Even with the prospect of a tougher stance, the Serbs were jubilant. "They feel that the specter of international intervention has been removed," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade. Without the threat of force, they aren't likely to cooperate in a lasting political settlement. "The Serbian people will never accept the maps proposed by the Western powers," declares ultra-nationalist leader Vojslav Seselj, who is threatening to oust ethnic minorities from Serbia. The Bosnians tried to conceal their profound disappointment. But Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's U.N. ambassador, clearly felt abandoned: "When you are the victim of genocide, you certainly believe that more than just negotiations are the appropriate response." Last week the Bosnians went on a hunger strike: after it became clear no arms were forthcoming, the Sarajevo government began boycotting U.N. deliveries of food and medicine until aid reaches the eastern part of the country.
The Bosnians may feel betrayed but, says a senior Clinton official, a U.S. presence at the table means they now have "a party there sympathetic to their plight. "The limits of that sympathy will soon be put to the test: Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic has insisted that his government won't negotiate about the map or a new constitution until the shelling of Sarajevo stops and Serbian guns are placed under international control-actions the Serbs pledged to take last August. Clinton has more to worry about than repeatedly broken promises. His initiative commits America to a long and risky course of action in Bosnia, peaceful or otherwise.