A Sly Game Of 'Liar's Poker'

The Bosnian war was fought on three widely separated fronts last week. Serb forces continued their assault on the Muslim enclave of Bihac. Republican leaders pressed their siege of Bill Clinton's White House, demanding bolder action against the Serbs. And France and Britain launched a brisk counterattack -- warning that if Clinton followed the Republican lead, the Europeans would pull their peacekeepers out of Bosnia and demand thousands of U.S. ground troops to cover their retreat. Except for the pounding of Bihac, the strife was mostly talk. Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich seemed as interested in embarrassing Clinton as in taking on the Serbs. And the Europeans weren't about to withdraw their peacekeepers. ""Poker is an American game,'' said a French official. ""Very well, we are playing poker menteur, liar's poker. We say we will withdraw, if . . . Let Mr. Dole see if that is a bluff or not.''

For the moment, at least, it was a bluff. The allies knew that if they withdraw from Bosnia, the United States would be free to do exactly what the Europeans fear -- bomb the Serbs and arm the Muslims -- which could wreck NATO and widen the war. The threat to pull out the United Nations ""protection force'' was not aimed solely at the Republicans; it was also a warning to both the Muslims and the Serbs. The departure of the peacekeepers would almost certainly lead to the fall of Muslim enclaves and confront the predominantly Muslim government with a grave humanitarian crisis. For the Serbs, a U.N. withdrawal would mean the loss of human shields that have protected them from NATO air attacks.

For both sides, the message was that a negotiated settlement would be better than a bigger war later on. The mandate for the U.N. force expires next March, and at that point, the Europeans may need the help of some 25,000 U.S. troops for a difficult extraction (page 38). The outlook for peacemaking is further complicated by the fact that relations between Russia and the West are souring rapidly (page 39).

As his Bosnian policy crumbled during the past month, President Clinton frequently seemed detached from the issue, aides said. His foreign-policy advisers had to make tough decisions with less guidance than usual from the top, and some of them, notably Defense Secretary William Perry, took matters into their hands. The administration zigged and zagged, exasperating its allies and presenting the Republicans with a fat political target. A chronology of the month in which the administration ran out of wiggle room on Bosnia:

No one should have been surprised when Washington announced it would no longer help enforce the naval embargo on arms shipments to Bosnia. The action was required by legislation that Democratic leaders drafted to head off a tougher proposal from Dole, who wanted to unilaterally lift the embargo. The allies knew the U.S. dropout was coming, but Washington had assured them that it would continue to supply intelligence information on suspect shipping in the Adriatic. Then, after the Republican victory, the administration reneged on the promise, infuriating the British in particular.

On the next day, an administration team led by Perry met to discuss the creation of an ""exclusion zone'' enforced by air power, to stop the Serb attack on Bihac. The allies wouldn't buy it. They pointed out that the Bosnian Muslims started the latest round of fighting by launching an offensive from Bihac, a U.N.-protected ""safe area.'' Said a European diplomat: ""If Washington wasn't prepared to tell the Bosnian forces to cease and desist, then when the Serbs [counterattacked], you can't ask us to step in and bomb them back to their original lines.''

In a last-ditch bid for support, Clinton called French President Francois Mitterrand. According to U.S. officials, Mitterrand said he would reconsider the proposal for an exclusion zone. But on Thanksgiving he called back and said protecting Bihac would require more ground troops. Clinton's basic policy on Bosnia -- use the threat of air power to promote a negotiated settlement -- had come to a dead end. Over lunch the next day, Perry and Secretary of State Warren Christopher began to draw up a new policy. Their aim was to save NATO, not Bosnia. Before meeting the allies in Brussels, Christopher told reporters that Europe needed a new ""security architecture'' to prevent future Bosnias.

The first public hint of a shift in the U.S. position came on NBC's ""Meet the Press.'' Perry said the Muslims had lost the war and insisted that air power alone could not reverse the outcome. Watching from his farm in Massachusetts, national-security adviser Anthony Lake was furious. Normally, he and his aides hold briefings or distribute ""talking points'' before senior officials make the rounds of the Sunday interview shows. This weekend Perry was on his own, and he took the opportunity to state the Pentagon's view without interagency hedging. ""It wasn't the right thing to be saying in public,'' complains a White House adviser. Lake began drafting another memo to Clinton, arguing that the administration should push even harder for a diplomatic solution.

On the same show, Dole said the peacekeepers should leave and the Muslims should be armed. The Europeans were incensed. Later, when Dole visited Britain, Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told him off in private. They warned that Bosnia could become America's war, with the Republicans bearing some of the blame. They wondered, politely, what impact that would have on the next presidential election.

At a ""principals meeting,'' Clinton's top advisers agreed that without military leverage, a negotiated settlement could be obtained only through new concessions to the Serbs. Some argued for allowing them to establish political links to their brethren in Croatia and in Yugoslavia's Serbian Republic. Lake objected, and the issue was left for the president to decide. But the next day Perry got the bit in his teeth again, commenting at a photo op that ""one of the things that would be considered is allowing a federation between the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbs.'' In fact, the emerging administration position included the possibility of a confederation -- a weaker link among the Serbs -- and only if the other parties to a peace settlement agreed. In Brussels, Christopher tried to take back Perry's concession, but the point had already been made.

On another session of ""Meet the Press,'' Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, said the allies should pull their peacekeepers out of Bosnia and provide the Muslims with arms and training. Then, he said, Gen. Colin Powell should be sent to tell the Serbs: ""If you launch a general offensive, we would . . . reserve the right to take you apart.'' House Republicans intend to put heavy pressure on Clinton's foreign policy. ""We would hope to force changes in the administration's policies through a combination of public pressure and legislative action,'' says a briefing paper prepared for Rep. Ben Gilman, the new chairman of the renamed International Relations Committee. But Gingrich's motivation seems mostly opportunistic. Only last month, he told reporters in Georgia that ""Bosnia is mainly a European problem.'' And even Dole's people winced at his threat to take the Serbs apart.

Dole has a more serious interest in Bosnia. He visited the region in 1990 and came away convinced that Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia's Serbian Republic, intended to provoke ethnic warfare. Dole's foreign-policy aide, Mira Baratta, is a Croatian-American who has relatives in Bosnia and Croatia and speaks the language. ""She knows the issues, so he knows the issues,'' says an administration official. In the next session of Congress, Dole will introduce legislation to unilaterally lift the arms embargo. He says he has 80 votes lined up, but already his own party is split on Bosnia. Last week two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia, announced their opposition to the kind of airstrikes proposed by Dole and Gingrich. And although the two congressional leaders endorsed the use of U.S. ground forces to extract the peacekeepers from Bosnia, other Republicans oppose it, including Sen. Jesse Helms. ""I'd say they're in as much of a mess on Bosnia as we are,'' gloats an administration official.

Another Democratic aide predicts that the Republicans will take every opportunity to embarrass the administration. ""The idea is to make Clinton look weak by [accusing him of] caving in on Bosnia,'' he says. ""We did it to the Republicans during the presidential campaign, and now it's payback time.'' The administration and its European allies would like to settle the Bosnian conflict diplomatically before the new Republican majority figures out how to manipulate the levers of power. Given Bosnia's sad history, that isn't likely to happen. By next spring, when the U.N. peacekeeping mandate expires, there will be a new balance of power in Washington, and thus in NATO as well. And Dole and Gingrich will be learning the old political lesson that governing is a lot tougher than opposition.