WASHINGTON — FOR President Clinton, it is a recipe for political disaster: Prime-time broadcasts of American ground troops taking casualties in Bosnia-Herzegovina as he girds for reelection.
This once far-fetched scenario is now a real possibility.
''With Srebrenica and Zepa, it seems we are at a defining moment,'' says a senior State Department official.
The Bosnian Serb assaults on more than 40,000 Muslims sheltered in the two United Nations-designated ''safe areas'' have pushed the hapless UN peacekeeping force closer to a pullout than at any time since its 1992 deployment.Should the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) have to abandon Bosnia, Clinton has pledged 25,000 US troops to a NATO-led withdrawal operation. But the timing could hurt Clinton politically. The withdrawal is scheduled to take five months and may encounter hostilities. That promises media coverage of US soldiers on foreign soil early in the 1996 campaign, the most difficult fight of the president's political life.
''Clinton is trying to avoid at all costs sending troops in. But he can't avoid sending troops as part of an integrated NATO mission,'' says Janusz Bugajski, Eastern European expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For now, Clinton and his political and military advisers have opted totry to bolster the 30,000-member UNPROFOR and keep it in Bosnia. How to do that is being deliberated among top American officials and between the US and France and Britain, which have the largest contingents in the UN peacekeeping force.
''There's really two options at play here,'' says the State Department official. ''The viable options at this point are that UNPROFOR stays or UNPROFOR goes, and the US position is that UNPROFOR stays, but ... only if they can be made effective. What we want to happen is that everybody comes into line on a plan that would make the UN Protection Force just that, a protection force.''
But there are no signs that the US and its European allies are near agreement on a strategy, a problem that has undermined UNPROFOR from its inception.
Arguing that the prestige and honor of the West and NATO are at stake, France is proposing that the line be drawn at Gorazde, a third UN ''safe area'' in eastern Bosnia. Unless an agreement is reached on Gorazde, French President Jacques Chirac has threatened to precipitate a UN troop withdrawal by pulling his forces out of Bosnia.
President Chirac wants to send French soldiers into Gorazde to reinforce some 300 British troops there. France reportedly asked for US helicopters to ferry its men.
US officials said Britain opposed the French plan. The US remains noncommittal. A meeting between US and European officials is slated for July 21 in London.
US military planners are examining numerous unknowns raised by the French plan. These include whether the mission of a beefed-up UN contingent in Gorazde would be ''defense or deterrence.'' The former would mean simply defending the town against attack, while the latter would require aggressive operations to neutralize Bosnian Serb offensive capabilities in the area.
Also under examination are such considerations as knocking out Bosnian Serb antiaircraft defenses around Gorazde, how many troops France is prepared to send, the kinds of equipment they would take, and where a US airlift would be based. ''I've been getting questions about what kinds of helicopters we'd use,'' says a Pentagon official. ''We're so far from that. There are so many basic kinds of questions before we get to that point.''
Clinton is also undoubtedly weighing the military and political risks of sending US personnel closer to the front lines. Unlike Capt. Scott O'Grady, the American pilot who was rescued after being shot down by the Bosnian Serbs, US helicopter pilots would be ferrying troops in and out of hostile territory.
One US official says another option being reviewed is massive NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb military and logistics targets. The airstrikes would be preceded by a withdrawal of UN troops from Gorazde to eliminate the possibility that they could be taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs, the official says.
But even as he gropes for some middle approach that shores up UNPROFOR without committing US ground troops, Clinton's tight-rope act faces a serious problem on the home front: the GOP-controlled Congress.
Disgusted by the UN's failure to protect Srebrenica and Zepa and fed up with paying the bulk of UNPROFOR's bills, lawmakers of both parties have been lining up behind Senate majority leader Bob Dole's legislation requiring the US to unilaterally lift the UN arms embargo on the Muslim-led Bosnian government. Clinton opposes the measure because France and Britain have vowed to pull their troops out of Bosnia if the US ends the embargo.
Debate on the bill was expected to begin in the Senate on July 18 or 19. The legislation has the crucial backing of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Congressional sources say that not only does Senator Dole have enough votes for passage, he might have the two-thirds majority required to override Clinton's expected veto.