Clinton swings US behind peace force

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Praised by political foe as well as friend, President Bill Clinton's speech on Bosnia seems to have begun to nudge a sceptical public here towards support for sending 20,000 American servicemen to help keep a precarious peace in the Balkans.

With the first few hundred US troops due in Bosnia next week, a poll taken immediately after Mr Clinton's prime-time televised address on Monday night showed 46 per cent in favour of US participation in the Nato mission with 40 per cent against - not a resounding vote of confidence, but an improvement on the solid majorities against direct US involvement before last week's successful conclusion to the Dayton peace talks.

Better still from the White House point of view, as Mr Clinton began consultations yesterday with a wary Congress, the reaction from the Republicans who matter most suggested he might yet win bipartisan political cover for an enterprise that could cost American lives.

Predictable holdouts remained - most notably the conservative challengers for the party's 1996 Presidential nomination, like Senator Phil Gramm of Texas who vowed to "stand up and fight the President's efforts". Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator and self-appointed mouthpiece of American isolationism, dismissed the entire rationale of the mission as "Utopian".

That rationale was summed up by just one paragraph of the President's sombre 20-minute address from the Oval Office: "If we're not there, Nato will not be there," he said. "The peace will collapse. The war will reignite. The slaughter of the innocents will begin again. A conflict that already has claimed so many victims could spread like poison, eat away at Europe's stability and erode our partnership with our European allies."

But the two most important Republicans took a far more conciliatory line than Mr Buchanan. Hinting that the Senate could even give an explicit vote of support for Mr Clinton, Bob Dole called the speech a "good start" at making the case for sending troops. "I want to find a way to support the President," said Mr Dole, doubtless not unmindful that as front-runner for the Republican nomination, he could find himself wrestling with the problem from the Oval Office less than 14 months hence.

Speaker Newt Gingrich also left open the possibility he could back the President, saying his mind was open and that America should not miss a chance of bringing a durable peace to the Balkans. Even the Senate's most authoritative opponent of US deployment, the Arizona Republican, John McCain, had kind words for Mr Clinton, though he complained the President had failed to set out a clear "exit strategy" for the Nato force.

In fact, Mr Clinton merely repeated that the US mission would last no more than a year. He acknowledged that commitment of troops "would well involve casualties", for which he would take full responsibility. But the US force would be more than capable of looking after itself. Anyone who took them on would suffer the consequences, the President warned. "We will fight fire with fire. And then some."

Nato's final draft plan will be submitted to Mr Clinton this week. Assuming his approval, the White House will immediately thereafter seek the formal support of Congress. In the meantime between 500 and 700 US advance troops will go to Bosnia. The main contingent will arrive after formal signature of the peace accord in Paris in mid-December.

According to the CNN-USA Today poll, by a 53 to 40 per cent margin Americans believe the US has a "moral obligation" to help keep the peace.

Brent Scowcroft, the former National Security Adviser in the Bush administration, told a Congressional committee that the possibility of disaster was "fairly high" but, he added, "I think disaster is absolutely certain if we turn our backs now".