On The March

Buoyed by his welcome in Northern Ireland and England, Bill Clinton landed in Baumholder, Germany, last week for a piece of dead-serious business: flank talk with the American soldiers he is now sending to Bosnia. Speaking before a massed formation of 4,000 camouflage-clad troops from the First Armored Division, Clinton evoked the horrors of the Bosnian war: concentration camps, mass executions, ethnic cleansing and the use of rape as calculated terror. He also talked about the dangers the troops will face in a region haunted by centuries of ethnic conflict. "You know better than anyone that every deployment has risks," Clinton said. "There could be accidents . . . there could be incidents with people who have still not given up their hatred."

He got their applause and arguably deserved it-for after trying in vain to finesse the Bosnian tragedy for the better part of three years, Clinton at last was taking action to prevent further tragedy in Bosnia. His televised speech earlier in the week made much the same argument to the American public-but beyond his carefully worded promise to end U.S. involvement in "about a year," Clinton did not answer the crucial question of how he expects to get out. "America cannot and should not be the world's policeman," the president said. "We cannot stop all war for all time, but we can stop some wars. We can't do everything, but we must do what we can."

Brave words, especially for a president who must stand for re-election within a year of launching this high-risk intervention in a small and distant country whose problems, coldly considered, pose no self-evident threat to American interests. But Clinton's boldness seemed to work, at least within the Beltway. House Republicans mostly stifled the urge to demagogue against his plan. Sen. Bob Dole, Clinton's most likely opponent in the coming election, reluctantly announced that he and Sen. John McCain of Arizona would introduce a resolution supporting the decision to send in the troops. The public was tougher. According to an ABC News poll, disapproval of Clinton's Bosnia policy actually went up, from 44 to 50 percent, after his speech. So did the percentage of those who said America has "no vital interest" in Bosnia: it is now 57 percent.

This is the national debate over going in. But in Bosnia, as in all military interventions, the hard part is deciding when to leave--the "exit strategy," as Washington now calls it. Publicly, administration officials say their plan is simply to keep the peace, disarm the Bosnian Serbs according to a formula negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, and hope that free elections and nation-building will help cool Bosnia's ethnic hatreds in a year or so. But their real exit strategy almost certainly depends on another device as well-an unwritten agreement with the Bosnian government to arm and train the Bosnian army. This agreement already has put the administration in a bind that may now be getting worse.

One half of the problem is Bob Dole, whose backing in the Senate is essential to the administration. Dole strongly supports arming the Bosnians, and aides say he intends to insert language in the pending Senate resolution to require it. In Dole's view, arming and training the Bosnian army would help Bosnia's Muslims defend themselves when U.S. and allied forces leave: it is a key to the success of the U.S. intervention. Former under secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, who advises Dole on foreign policy, says the senator wants no delay in training the Bosnians. Wolfowitz wants Clinton to supply them with state-of-the-art U.S. weapons like TOW antitank missiles.

The other half of Clinton's political problem is that the U.S. military strongly opposes arming the Bosnians, at least for now. This opposition is based on the fear that the policy could lead to higher casualties among the U.S. and allied troops who will serve in IFOR, the "implementation force" established by the Dayton peace accords. The reason is that an overt U.S. attempt to strengthen the Bosnian army might prompt the already embittered Bosnian Serbs to retaliate against IFOR troops. That fear is entirely plausible to Bosnia experts like Philip Gordon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Gordon says the Serbs would probably not try frontal assaults on the much-better-armed IFOR units--but that they might well use guerrilla tactics. "The Bosnian Serbs can't fight IFOR or a U.S. division," Gordon says. "But can they fire off mortar rounds and run away? Can they snipe? You bet. They would seek to draw blood."

The British, French and Germans also oppose arming the Bosnians, and at Dayton the Clinton administration tried to paper over these differences with a back-room deal. 'The peace accords contain only a hint of the need to arm the Bosnians--an opaque reference to "military assistance and training programs," coupled to an arcane numerical formula for eventually achieving a more stable military balance among Bosnia's warring factions. But Bosnia's prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, told Dole's aides that he had a secret meeting with Secretary of Defense William Perry in Dayton. Perry pledged to arm the Bosnians. The United States, Perry said, would "make it happen." Silajdzic said he got assurances from Secretary of State Warren Christopher as well.

Christopher, Perry and Vice President Al Gore all publicly confirmed the U.S. commitment to arm and train the Bosnians last week. But the brass went public with its concerns as well. "Because of our concern for the safety of American troops, the joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended in very strong terms that no American military personnel be involved in any kind of arm-and-train effort," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, told the House International Relations Committee. Shalikashvili's admission reflects the continuing tension between the White House and the uniformed services over the Bosnian question. Administration sources say Clinton laid down the law in a meeting at the White House on Nov. 22. "Whatever ambiguities and uncertainties any of you may have had in the past, Dayton is done," Clinton said. "Now we're going to make it work." According to one source, the president was staring directly at Shalikashvili.

Even the Joint Chiefs concede the need for ensuring a better military balance in Bosnia. So the real issue is not whether to strengthen the Bosnian army, but when and how to do it. The Pentagon has already won the argument that IFOR should not be directly involved, and administration officials are trying get a friendly, Muslim-dominated country like Malaysia or Turkey to provide arms and training. Assuming the Bosnian Serbs accept this diplomatic fig leaf, that could reduce the risk to U.S. and allied troops. Wolfowitz, however, says the Bosnian Serbs know perfectly well that the United States is backing the Bosnian government: he still insists the administration should provide American weapons and training now.

The solution to this conflict is still unclear, but an obscure appendix to the Dayton peace agreement gives a glimpse of the task ahead. In Dayton, all sides to the Bosnia conflict agreed to ratios for a new military balance that would give the Bosnian government military dominance over the Bosnian Serbs. Under the formula, the Serbs would have only 10,000 troops and would have to give up 75 percent of their tanks and armored vehicles and 50 percent of their attack helicopters. The Bosnian government, with 20,000 men, could more than double the size of its tank force and acquire up to 46 combat aircraft and 50 surface-to-air missiles. The bottom line is a multimillion-dollar armament program for Bosnia and a frightening problem for the allies--for no one knows whether the Bosnian Serbs will comply with these "build-down" targets.

Few Bosnia experts think a single year of peacekeeping will extinguish the simmering hatreds between the Serbs and Muslims--and the Pentagon, NEWSWEEK has learned, has already warned the White House that some kind of peacekeeping force will be required for some years to come. If that is true, Clinton's commitment to withdraw U.S. troops in 1996 may be very hard to keep. Arming the Muslims would make a timely withdrawal more plausible: it is, or seems to be, the best exit strategy around. But what if the Bosnian Serbs respond by targeting U.S. troops? How Clinton resolves this dilemma will affect the success of his Balkan intervention--and may mean life or death to beleaguered Bosnia.