US voices raised for taking decisive action

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NEW YORK - Two freshman Republican senators left a Capitol Hill briefing from the Clinton administration on air strikes on Bosnia and one was overheard saying to the other, 'What we need is a Truman'.

And they spoke admiringly of President Harry Truman, a man of decision, a man who led the United States at the end of the Second World War and dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese in 1945.

There is a handful of Congressmen, mostly Republicans, who can remember the Second World War or are Vietnam veterans, who speak out against military entanglement in Bosnia and regard the crisis as a strictly European imbroglio not worth one American pilot. But an increasing number of others, like the freshmen senators, fear acquiescence in something horrible - in what the administration is calling the 'strangulation' of Sarajevo.

Yesterday, a young foreign service officer in the State Department, Marshall Freeman Harris, who was the department's country expert for Bosnia, resigned over US Bosnia policy, alleging that President Clinton's sudden push for air strikes was too little, too late, and represented an abandonment of an earlier stance that Bosnia should be preserved as an independent state. 'I can no longer serve in a Department of State that accepts the forceful dismemberment of a European state and that will not act against genocide and the Serbian officials who perpetrate it,' Mr Harris wrote in his letter of resignation.

The air strikes now planned are partly intended to 'assuage our guilt' over earlier inaction, said Mr Harris, adding that by pressing the Bosnian government to accept partition the administration 'is driving the Bosnian government to surrender its territory and its sovereignty to the victors in a war of aggression'.

Mr Harris's resignation followed other indications of frustration and dissent over Mr Clinton's inaction. In April, middle-level officials sent a letter to the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, calling for military action against the Serbs. Stung by these critics, the administration is seeking to reassert the US's role as a leader of Nato and take decisive military action in Bosnia. Nato has declared the strangulation of Sarajevo unacceptable, and today US Admiral Jeremy 'Mike' Boorda, who is the commander of Nato Forces South and who would be in charge of any air strikes against Serb forces, is due to report to the Nato military committee. The plan should be approved on Monday.

Those in the administration like the UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, who have always favoured action, finally won the day. Mr Clinton and Mr Christopher decided, at the last minute, that they could no longer be passive witnesses to the 'strangulation' of Sarajevo. But why now? Has the administration become, as critics allege, too much of a public relations nightmare to risk watching the fall of Sarajevo on CNN?

And what does the administration really want? Critics say the new policy is not saving Bosnia, it is asking the Bosnian government to sign up to partition of its country - the plan proposed by the EC and the UN. 'What they're saying to the Bosnians is we let you be cornered, now we will prevent you from being exterminated in your corner until you sign yourself away,' was how one Senate aide put it. To its critics, the administration is being deeply cynical when it says, as Mr Christopher now likes to say, 'we are putting air power at the service of diplomacy'.

The view of these critics on Capitol Hill is that US policy was already humiliating in its inaction, but now represents the potential for an even more catastrophic humiliation. While the US is making grand gestures about intervention and saving Sarajevo, it is also countenancing the delays and compromises that are part of the UN and Nato process of decision-making. This process renders the rhetorical decision to intervene painfully slow in execution, perhaps even inoperative because of bureaucratic stumbling blocks.

While the yearning for a Truman and swift and decisive action is growing, the critics have not given up hope. 'If they can get to the point of making strikes, that will be a big step across the threshhold, the Bosnians will have a new lease of life and there will be no reason for them to sign away their country,' said another aide.