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US salutes 'tough' military chief: Shalikashvili may shake up policy on Bosnia, says Phil Reeves in Washington

ADVOCATES of the use of force in Bosnia may well have been encouraged by President Bill Clinton's choice of General John Shalikashvili for the United States' top military post, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The four-star army general, currently supreme allied commander in Europe, recently made clear that he thought Western policy in Bosnia had so far failed, and indicated that some of the blame rested with the US.

In an interview with reporters at Nato headquarters in Belgium seven weeks ago, he described the Bosnian crisis as 'a lesson to all of us of the importance of American leadership' and of the 'price we pay when it isn't there . . . The United States did not lead in this operation from the very beginning, as it did in previous crises'.

The general, whose nomination looks certain to be speedily confirmed by the Senate, did not specifically call for military action, but accused the West of a tendency to over-estimate the strength of the Serbs. 'We are not fighting a first-rate, fully combat-capable outfit like we have been preparing for I don't know how many years,' he said. 'Never underestimate the mess and the nastiness you can get into, but I think we have had too much overestimating.'

Yesterday news of Gen Shalikashvili's nomination was warmly welcomed in the US, where the contrast between his comments and Gen Colin Powell's cautious pronouncements on Bosnia has not gone unnoticed. His views appear to have hardened with time. When Gen Shalikashvili testified before the Senate armed services committee in April, he sounded doubtful about air strikes, saying 'it is more difficult than some people believe it is'.

Gen Powell's term of office ends on 30 September after a four-year stint in the job in which he became the most powerful and popular chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for years. He even won admirers in the White House, where he was generally considered too conservative.

The choice of Gen Shalikashvili (pronounced Shah-lee-kash-VEE-lee) ended weeks of jockeying for the job among the top generals and admirals, which came to the fore when Mr Clinton asked his top 16 commanders to dinner at the White House. In the end, there was reportedly only one other name on the shortlist - Joseph Hoar, the marine general who heads US Central Command.

Officials have circulated colourful accounts of the general's career, a rags-to-riches story tailored to appeal to those who still nurture the American Dream. The general, who will be the first foreign-born officer to fill the post, was born in Warsaw in 1936, the son of a Georgian army officer, and the grandson of a high-ranking tsarist army officer. In 1944 his family fled to Germany. At 16, he set off for the US, settling in a Midwest town.

Attention has particularly focused on his more recent achievements, and his suitability to act as adviser to a president disliked by many in the military. The initial verdict yesterday was positive. Before assuming command of US and allied forces in Europe, he is credited with helping shape Nato into a more flexible military and political force, and negotiating effectively with the Eastern bloc over dismantling nuclear weapons. He also led Operation Provide Comfort, the allied effort to protect the Kurds in Iraq after they fled to the hills pursued by Saddam Hussein's forces following the Gulf war.

Perhaps most importantly, however, he has recently presided over plans for possible air strikes by Nato allies against the Bosnian Serbs. So he should be well acquainted with what Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, calls 'the problem from hell'.