US blames allies for Bosnia delay: White House accuses Europe, but Clinton may be relieved that he can avoid tough decision

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The Independent Online
WITH Bosnia emerging ever more clearly as an acid test of his leadership both at home and abroad, President Bill Clinton may actually be grateful to the stalling by America's European allies as the clamour mounts for forceful Western action to end the bloodshed in the Balkans.

This weekend, with opinion polls suggesting the President's popularity is slipping and his economic programme is losing support, White House officials were again blaming the lack of Western backing for military intervention - without which Mr Clinton insists he will not move - for the failure to come up with an agreed plan.

Outwardly, the divisions are as wide as ever, as the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, could only acknowledge at a weekend meeting with the President to report on his inconclusive trip to Europe, and the continuing resistance of key partners, notably Britain and France, to the 'Operation Fair Fight' strategy advocated by Mr Clinton. This involves air strikes on Serbian positions while arms are delivered to the Bosnian Muslims.

Yesterday, speaking on NBC television, the EC negotiator Lord Owen could only underscore the transatlantic differences, warning of the peril of the 'Europeans thinking of the Americans as cowboys and Americans thinking of the Europeans as wimps'.

What was happening was a civil war, 'hideously complex with deep historical roots'. The belief that it could be dealt with from the air was a delusion. 'You can possibly tilt the balance,' Lord Owen declared, 'You can possibly at times help a negotiated settlement. But you will not solve the problem at 10,000 feet.'

In fact, though, European hesitations are only one of the obstacles faced by Mr Clinton if he is determined to push through his 'level battlefield' policy. From Joint Chiefs chairman, Colin Powell, downwards, the military has deep reservations, a majority of public opinion is against direct US intervention, and Congress itself is not enthusiastic - at least without the clear and persuasive definition of America's interests and objectives in the Balkans which both Republicans and Democrats are demanding. As Lee Hamilton, the influential chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee put it yesterday: 'Ordinary members of Congress are frustrated, crying out for more information. I suspect the votes aren't there now. But if the President speaks out and puts it in a national security context he would carry the day.'

In short, beyond a feeling that 'something must be done', the mood in Washington is utterly confused. The administration is sceptical that either the current ceasefire or Belgrade's embargo on arms and other strategic supplies to Serb commanders or, least likely of all, next weekend's Bosnian Serb 'referendum' on the Vance-Owen peace plan will bring an end to the fighting. It knows too that America's credibility in the crisis depends on an effective show of leadership. It is, however, no less aware than are the Europeans of the longer- term dangers of a public split among the allies: 'No one wants to be in the business of splintering the alliance,' said a senior Nato diplomat at the weekend.

Faced with perhaps the trickiest foreign policy decision confronting a recent President, Mr Clinton is thus able to bide his time. Mr Christopher has been instructed to conduct further soundings among the allies, while the President was last night again consulting congressional leaders, before leaving for a three-day trip to Cleveland, Chicago and New York to promote his economic programme.

US military intervention in Bosnia looked no closer yesterday than it was before Mr Christopher first went to Europe eight days ago.

(Photograph omitted)