WASHINGTON — UNITED States officials are beginning gingerly to prepare the public for deployment of American ground troops in Bosnia to help enforce a peace settlement.
Though a comprehensive peace deal is still months away, at best, the special US envoy to the Bosnian peace talks, Charles Redmond, has expressed satisfaction at progress that has been made in recent weeks.
Washington has promised for a long time to provide peacekeepers if a settlement can be reached, and with negotiations speeding up, officials say it may be time to explain to voters just what US involvement might be.
``I don't think the American public is sold'' on Bosnian peacekeeping, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters last week.
``We have a lot of explaining to do,'' he said.
The nation's top uniformed officer said that the Pentagon expects to contribute as many as 25,000 troops - half of a 50,000-strong force that NATO has used as a benchmark for any Balkans peacekeeping deployment.
State Department and White House officials have begun to hint that the number of US troops needed might in fact be fewer than the long-standing 25,000 estimate.
Current peace plans call for Bosnia to be split into two republics, one of Serbs and one of Croatians and Muslims, rather than the 10-enclave division that earlier maps had called for.
General Shalikashvili said he would be happy if the US commitment were smaller than 25,000. An exact number, he says, isn't possible to estimate until he sees the military tasks needed in any peace deal.
But the final US commitment should be based on such needs, and not on what is ``politically salable,'' he said.
If the administration properly lists the costs of inaction in Bosnia, such as damage to NATO credibility and possible spread of instability in Europe, the US public will go along with an American military mission in Bosnia, said Shalikashvili.
Somalia, he said, is a lesson in what happens when the US public is not prepared. All official statements indicated that the peacekeeping effort in Somalia would be an easy military mission; when the US started to take casualties, public surprise led to political overreaction and a pullout of US troops.
The Pentagon, long leery of involvement in Bosnia, has also moved to make sure that its interests are represented around the table if final peacekeeping documents are drawn up.
Retired Gen. John Galvin, former head of NATO and US forces in Europe, has been sent by Washington to Europe to observe peace talks.
Previous peace plans contained provisions the US military says would have been unacceptable, such as a promise that any UN peacekeeping forces would get the agreement of all surrounding factions if they wanted to move.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials continued to sound cool to the idea of expanding NATO bombing threats from Sarajevo to other besieged Bosnian cities.
Other towns are suffering not so much from artillery as from infantry fighting, Defense Secretary William Perry said last week. Such military activity is far harder to stop with airpower than is the firing of heavy guns.
``We do not want to make empty threats,'' Mr. Perry said.