June 13, 1996

Perry Says U.S. Troops May Stay in Bosnia Past Deadline


WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William Perry said Wednesday that U.S. ground troops may have to remain in Bosnia beyond their original December pullout date and well into next year to prevent the shaky peace in Bosnia from disintegrating again into civil war.

Perry said that if NATO decided to keep its peacekeeping force in Bosnia, "it would be my recommendation that the United States participate in that decision, and participate in any force that is so designated."

"There may be a mission associated with deterring a war from restarting," he told reporters during a trip to Europe that took him to Macedonia on Wednesday. "NATO will not want simply to give up on the investment that they've made in Bosnia."

When President Clinton took the politically risky step of sending U.S. troops to Bosnia late last year, he and other administration officials were firm in saying they would be out in a year.

While that deadline has already slipped, Clinton said Wednesday that he hoped that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would begin in mid-December and end quickly. "We should stick with our timetable," he said.

But Perry's comments held out the prospect of a much longer U.S. deployment in Bosnia, and they appeared to catch the White House by surprise. A decision in an election year to keep U.S. ground troops in Bosnia beyond the original timetable would carry obvious political dangers for Clinton, which may explain why the White House was quick Wednesday to try to play down the significance of the defense secretary's comments.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Perry "was just speculating on what the decision-making process might be in the future, but there is no substantive reason to speculate on what type of decision the alliance might make as we look ahead to 1997 and beyond."

"There has been no change in the president's view of the current IFOR mission," he said, referring to the NATO Implementation Force now in Bosnia. "It will last about a year."

At a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Clinton said he hoped to stick with a timetable that would allow the troop withdrawal to begin in December. "We believe that it has to be an effective military force certainly until Dec. 20 and then some draw-down can begin after that," he said.

But in remarks that went far beyond anything he has said before on the issue, Perry explained why U.S. ground troops may need to remain in Bosnia well beyond the December deadline to prevent a resumption of the civil war.

"It's not clear that ground troops would be part of the decision, but if ground troops are part of the decision, then I would think that the U.S. would want to participate in it," he said.

Perry's comments were the latest concession by the Clinton administration that the original time frame for the NATO peacekeeping force may have been unrealistic, and that bringing peace to the Balkans is proving more difficult than the administration forecast when it brokered a peace accord last year.

The Dec. 19 deadline for a pullout -- the one-year anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops in Bosnia -- has slipped before.

The administration said at the outset of the mission that it planned to have all U.S. troops out of Bosnia by Dec. 19. But only a few weeks ago, Perry disclosed that the pullout was unlikely to be completed until late January or February; his remarks Wednesday suggested that the deadline would slip even further.

Pentagon officials have warned that without the presence of foreign troops, the fragile peace effort in Bosnia is likely to collapse, perhaps leading to a permanent partition of the country.

"From where I sit right now, I think that it is unlikely that a major war will break out next year," Perry said. But he suggested that much could happen in the Balkans before December, and that NATO might have to consider a variety of options to keep the peace, including an extended deployment of the U.S.-led peacekeeping force.

He insisted that NATO would be able to carry out its central mission in Bosnia by mid-December -- the separation of the long-warring factions and the establishment of a sufficiently peaceful environment to permit elections and to encourage economic reconstruction. "That mission, I am convinced, is going to be done," he said.

The quandary, he suggested, is what should follow in Bosnia if it is clear that the factions are not moving quickly enough toward reconciliation, as certainly appears to be the case Wednesday.

"There may be a mission associated with deterring a war from restarting," Perry said. "If NATO decides to take on that mission, and that's a big if," then "the new question is what's the force structure required to do that."

The suggestion that U.S. troops might remain in Bosnia far longer than originally promised has set off alarms on Capitol Hill, with Republicans suggesting that the president has made the decision already but is delaying an announcement until after the elections in the United States.

"President Clinton knows that the American people would be outraged by this action," said Representative Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who is a member of the House National Security Committee.

"President Clinton is more concerned about winning re-election than being honest with Americans," he said. "To keep this secret from the American people is both cowardly and irresponsible."

Clinton's presumed opponent in the elections, Bob Dole, withheld criticism about the peacekeeping mission as he began his first full day of campaigning after his retirement from the Senate.

"Until they train and arm the Bosnians, they're not going to be able to leave," Dole said of the NATO peacekeeping force.