PRESIDENT Clinton, faced with continuing congressional pressure to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, is trying to finesse the issue.
His Aug. 11 letter to the United States Senate promised that he will ask the United Nations Security Council to end the embargo if the Bosnian Serbs do not accept the current peace proposal by Oct. 15. If the Council does not agree, he will consult with Congress about unilateral US action.
This is a dangerous path. The White House understands the implications for the US in pressing the issue, but feels a need to respond to congressional sentiment. What is astonishing is that the responsible, senior members of the Senate do not understand the perils for US foreign policy in lifting the arms ban.
The possibility of the Bosnian Serbs accepting the peace plan is remote. So is the likelihood that other countries will support a US resolution to lift the sanctions. Given Russian sympathy for Serbs, Moscow's support is unlikely; the US would be fortunate to avoid a veto. France and Britain have said they will abstain. Mr. Clinton's ploy could fail.
Four serious risks to progress toward peace in Bosnia exist if Congress unilaterally lifts the embargo.
Risk No. 1: Unless the situation changes markedly in the next two months, recent advances toward peace could be reversed. The recent decision of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to stop supplies to the Bosnian Serbs, if sustained, could reduce their capacity to wage war. But, if a large new supply of arms flow to the Muslims, how realistic is it to think Mr. Milesovic can continue to isolate his fellow Serbs?
Risk No. 2: As members of the contact group negotiating peace in Bosnia, the Russians have been more cooperative than at any other time. Yet President Yeltsin cannot totally ignore the pro-Serb nationalist feeling that exists in his country. Like Milesovic, can he remain inactive in the face of what will be seen as American help to Muslims?
Risk No. 3: A unilateral US decision to ignore the embargo could lead to serious breaches in other UN sanctions of greater importance: Iraq, Libya, and Haiti. Senate voices insist that these situations are not comparable to Bosnia; renegade regimes cannot be compared with a legitimate government seeking to defend itself. But other governments, anxious to resume trade, especially with Iraq, identify the sanctions against Baghdad, Tripoli, and Port-au-Prince primarily with the US. If the US is going to relax sanctions unilaterally, why cannot others do so? Where does that leave the UN system of order?
Risk No. 4: Neither US administration has wanted military involvement in Bosnia. Is it realistic to think that, once Congress has relaxed the embargo, such action will not be followed by requests for weapons? Will legislators attentive to American weapons manufacturers ignore Bosnian requests to purchase arms? Will this mean US citizens will need to train the Muslims?
These are the minimum risks. In another scenario, UN peacekeepers are withdrawn and a conflict rages with the US supplying weapons to the Muslims and the Russians to the Serbs. Some may view these questions as extreme or irrelevant given the Muslims' tragic plight in the face of Serb aggression. But they need to be asked and answered before a US withdrawal from sanctions.
Peace in Bosnia is a frustrating and, at times, futile effort. Still, a fragile coalition of nations, including Russia, has labored to restrain action. More than concern for victims is needed to justify a US break with the international community's decisions.