WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton adamantly refuses to send troops to protect Bosnia-Herzegovina's United Nations ''safe areas,'' saying the public is opposed. Yet, he believes Americans are prepared to commit US lives and nuclear arms to defend former communist states in Eastern Europe.
The paradox raised by the Bosnian Serb assaults on Zepa and Srebrenica adds new tinder to a debate over Mr. Clinton's plan to invite former Soviet Bloc states into the 16-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Bound by the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty to regard ''an armed attack on one ... as an armed attack on them all,'' the United States would be obliged to pledge its conventional forces - and in theory its nuclear shield - to protect new NATO members from aggression. How can Clinton justify defending Hungary or Poland - but not Bosnia's Muslim enclaves, ask analysts, noting congressional and public opposition to new foreign military commitments.
''The general public has not focused on this, but they are the ones who will have to pay,'' says Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, an opponent of the administration's NATO enlargement policy.
Bosnia is amplifying other concerns about NATO expansion. Many analysts worry that the persistent feuds within the alliance over dealing with Europe's worst bloodshed in 50 years signal an inability to adapt to a more complex, post-cold-war world. They also ask if Clinton's continual deference to European powers on Bosnia marks a weakening in the US leadership that has long been regarded as the glue of NATO cohesion.
''Clinton is confronted with a situation where the future of NATO and the traditional concept of American leadership of the NATO alliance could be in real jeopardy,'' says William Taylor, a defense expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
US officials are themselves clearly concerned about Bosnia's impact on NATO's future. An agreement between the US, France, and Britain on addressing the latest UN debacle in Bosnia is ''very important ... to ensure that the alliance remains together,'' says White House spokesman Michael McCurry.
The NATO expansion debate began long before the Bosnian Serb onslaughts against Srebrenica and Zepa. It has largely focused on Russia's anger that the Western military alliance plans to move closer to its frontiers. Many experts warn of a new rivalry that could plunge US-Russian relations into what Russian President Boris Yeltsin has called a ''cold peace.''
''You could develop big problems if you continue down this path,'' Senator Nunn warns. ''The one we are on now plays right into the hands of the extreme nationalists in Russia.''
The US military initially opposed NATO expansion. It now supports it, but reservations persist. Before sending Americans to ''die on someone else's property,'' says Army spokesman Col. Dick Bridges, ''we have looked at every single facet of that commitment.''
Clinton has declared NATO enlargement inevitable, saying it is the best way to avert a resurgence of age-old European feuds that led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of US lives in two wars this century. The only questions, Clinton says, are which states will be admitted to NATO and when.
Part of the answer should come in a NATO study, due in several weeks, outlining how and why the alliance should expand. But the study will not address which states will be invited to join, although diplomats say Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are first in line. Nor will it set a timetable.
THE Clinton's administration was initially divided over NATO's continued relevance. It finally concluded that NATO had preserved Western European amity through US stewardship. Therefore, why wouldn't enlarging NATO, along with other European institutions, avert a rebirth of age-old disputes in Central and Eastern Europe?
While refusing to admit it openly, US officials privately concede that another force driving NATO expansion is uncertainty in Russia. They worry that President Yeltsin could be replaced by a hardline nationalist bent on reasserting Russian power and prestige. Enlarging NATO is seen as a hedge against a resurgent Moscow. ''We haven't fooled the Russians. We shouldn't fool ourselves. There is a residual [Russian] threat to European security,'' a senior official says.
But officials are confident that Russia is far too weak to pose a serious danger in the near term. Talks have begun on a Moscow-NATO agreement to formalize closer ties. But a senior official says Russia will not be given a veto on which countries can join NATO. ''The question is ... how do you have a mechanism that has them consulted, but doesn't have a seat at the table,'' he asks.
Meanwhile, Clinton officials say the prospect of NATO membership gives the new democracies an incentive to fully reform, and the American public is more likely to provide military support to these emerging democracies than to Bosnia.