The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Ÿ Seeking support for a risky military mission, President Clinton built a case last night for sending 20,000 U.S. troops to enforce a fragile peace agreement in Bosnia. ''In the choice between peace and war,'' he declared, ''America must choose peace.''
Despite misgivings, it appeared Congress would bow to the White House. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said he believed in the constitutional authority of the president and added, ''No doubt about it, whether Congress agrees or not, troops will go to Bosnia.''
In a prime-time address from the Oval Office, Clinton acknowledged American forces will face danger and he assumed ''full responsibility'' for any casualties. However, he laid down a marker to anyone threatening the peacekeepers: ''America protects its own. Anyone Ÿ anyone Ÿ who takes on our troops will suffer the consequences. We will fight fire with fire and then some.''
He said a small number of American troops would go into Bosnia sometime next week to lay the groundwork for thousands more to come, probably before Christmas.
''If we're not there, NATO will not be there,'' Clinton said in a 20-minute speech delivered in somber tones. ''The peace will collapse. The war will re-ignite. The slaughter of innocents will begin again.''
''Let us lead,'' Clinton implored. ''That is our responsibility as Americans.''
Clinton pledged that the U.S. mission Ÿ expected to last up to a year Ÿ would be limited, focused and under the command of an American general.
''America cannot and must not be the world's policemen,'' he said. ''We cannot stop all war for all time but we can stop some wars. We cannot save all women and all children but we can save many of them. We can't do everything but we must do what we can do.''
''My fellow Americans, in this new era, there are still times when America Ÿ and America alone Ÿ can and should make the difference for peace.''
Clinton's prime-time address kicked off an intense administration campaign to break down skepticism to what Pentagon planners regard as the most dangerous U.S. military operation since the Persian Gulf War.
Clinton tried to assuage fears that the operation would evolve into a major conflict, what critics refer to as ''mission creep.'' Four times in the speech he described the operation in narrow terms and said it would have ''realistic goals that can be achieved in a finite period of time.''
The American troops would be part of a 60,000-man NATO force enforcing a 600-mile long separation zone between the warring factions. Headquartered in Tuzla in northeast Bosnia, the Americans would be deployed in a mountainous, mine-strewn countryside in harsh winter conditions.
The dangers would be compounded by the bitter ethnic rivalries and suspicions that tore apart Yugoslavia. To some in Bosnia, the NATO troops are more likely to be seen as an unwelcome occupying force than as peacekeeping saviors.
The mission comes on the heels of an agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, last week to stop the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II.
''We must not turn our backs on Bosnia now,'' Clinton said. ''And so I ask all Americans Ÿ and I ask every member of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, to make the choice for peace. In the choice between peace and war, American must choose peace.''
Clinton said the Bosnia mission ''can succeed because the mission is clear and limited. Our troops are strong and very well prepared.'' And yet, Clinton acknowledged, ''no deployment of American troops is risk free and this one may well involve casualties.''
Clinton had promised to seek Congress' support for the mission, but made clear he would invoke his powers as commander in chief to deploy the forces even if lawmakers resisted.
It appeared Congress would defer to the president Ÿ and let him shoulder the responsibility as well.
''(He) has the authority and the power under the Constitution to do what he feels should be done, regardless of what Congress does,'' said Dole.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, ''I think people are skeptical but I think they are willing to listen.''
The White House wants Congress to vote before Clinton attends a formal signing of the peace agreement in Paris by mid-December.
The Dayton peace treaty marked a change in fortune for Clinton's Bosnia policy, widely perceived during most of his administration as ill-defined and inconsistent. Before the accord, his political advisers had worried that his Bosnia policy would be a drag on his re-election campaign.
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