Strikes raise US stakes in war

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The Independent Online
THE APPARENT Serbian defiance yesterday of more strikes by US warplanes around Gorazde has sharply increased the stakes in Bosnia for President Bill Clinton - threatening to drag the Western alliance into a broadening conflict, straining not only Washington's relations with Russia but also the current show of unity among his top advisers.

Outwardly, the administration betrays no such anxieties. Speaking before a meeting with his national security team, Mr Clinton said the air attacks yesterday and on Sunday were an 'entirely appropriate' response and that the UN commanders who had requested them were simply doing their jobs. They had been put at risk and had asked for support. 'We did our best to provide it,' he said.

The President took a similar line in a phone conversation with Boris Yeltsin, intended to smooth complaints by the Russian leader that Moscow had not been consulted in advance. It was, Mr Clinton claimed, 'quite a good talk', in which he insisted the strikes were part of a process to which the Russians had agreed last year at the UN.

Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN and a long-standing proponent of tougher Western action in Bosnia, also brushed aside Russian objections, saying that, given the lack of time and the existing UN authority for the strikes, the Russians had been kept fully in the picture. US officials were privately spreading word that further strikes would be launched if requested by UN commanders, irrespective of Russian misgivings.

All now depends on the Bosnian Serb response. Ideally for Washington, the relatively limited strikes will quickly silence the guns around Gorazde. But yesterday's reports of an intensified bombardment of the city after the second air strike suggests the Serbs are deliberately challenging Nato - and, by extension, the US.

At this point, the internal differences that have plagued the administration might resurface. the Defense Secretary, William Perry, whose apparent hostility a week ago to the use of Nato airpower was criticised as a virtual invitation to the Serbs to step up the siege of Gorazde, now says he was misunderstood and that he wholeheartedly backs the tougher new policy. Ostensibly therefore, the administration is at one on Bosnia.

But if hostilities escalate, the faction that believed air strikes would only make things worse will again be warning that as prospects for a negotiated settlement fade, the US risks being dragged into an open- ended military commitment.

Reinforcing such worries is a fear the Bosnian Muslims will see the air strikes as confirmation that the alliance is in the war on their side, and a tacit go-ahead for a new offensive on the ground to regain lost territory. In that case, the already dubious chances of an overall settlement would become slimmer still.