WASHINGTON — AFTER intense diplomacy and NATO airstrikes, the Clinton administration has persuaded the warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina to lay down their arms and begin serious peace talks.
Now the hard part begins at home: persuading Congress to allow some 20,000 American troops to be dispatched to Bosnia to help guarantee the peace once a final settlement is in hand.
Indications are that lawmakers will give the green light only reluctantly and only after the ground rules for American military engagement are clearly defined.
''I'm happy with the cease-fire but still concerned about the use of American troops on the ground in Bosnia,'' says one leading critic of President Clinton's Bosnia policy, Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire.
''I'm sure you'll see that a large portion of Congress will want to have the president clarify - before American troops are sent - the issue of what they are going over there to do, why, what their mission will be, what the endgame is, and when they'll be out,'' he said.
Mr. Clinton announced last Thursday that Bosnian leaders had agreed to a 60-day cease-fire, due to begin today. Once the guns fall silent, preliminary peace talks will be held in the United States, followed by a full-scale international peace conference in Paris.
Significant issues will have to be resolved before a cease-fire can be translated into a peace settlement, including the map of a proposed new Bosnian federation. If and when they are, administration officials say, American participation in a NATO-led peacekeeping force of up to 60,000 will be indispensible.
''It's not going to happen unless NATO does it and NATO isn't going to do it unless the US does it,'' says one senior administration official.
Insisting that Bosnia is Europe's problem and not within the purview of US national interests, many lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of the administration's commitment, first made in 1994, to provide American troops to help monitor an eventual agreement.
If a viable settlement is reached at the bargaining table, lawmakers will have to make a politically risky and morally complex choice: Whether to go along with the president and bear some of the blame if American casualties result or whether to say no and bear the blame if the peace process fails.
Administration officials hint that they will press ahead with troops deployments with or without the formal blessing of Congress, so important is a US contribution to a NATO force seen to be. The alternative would be to convince Congress, as President Clinton sought to do in an address on Friday, that the risks of deployment are acceptably low.
''The United States will not be sending our forces into combat in Bosnia,'' Clinton said. ''We will not be sending them into a peace that cannot be maintained. But we must use our power to secure that peace.''
''We want to do this with the Congress on board, not against us,'' confirms the senior official.
One sweetener may make the idea of dispatching American troops go down easier with lawmakers: The official says the NATO operation, and American participation in it, will come to an end within one year, come what may.
But even this may not be enough to assuage skeptical lawmakers.
''If the president believes he has already made his case to send 25,000 Americans to Bosnia, he is sadly mistaken,'' Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas said at a news conference last Friday.
A NONBINDING resolution amended to a Senate appropriations bill and approved last week urges Clinton to secure a vote of approval from the Senate before sending troops to Bosnia. The Senate voted such approval before President Bush dispatched American troops to the Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Mr. Dole has been pressing to have the US exempt Bosnia from a three-year UN arms embargo as a way of rectifying an arms imbalance between Bosnian government and Serb forces in Bosnia - a measure that would preclude the necessity of sending American forces, he says.
The administration has resisted, saying unilateral action could compromise NATO unity. Clinton officials now say if a settlement is reached, they will seek multinational support to arm and train Bosnian government troops.
Asked whether the administration would unilaterally lift the embargo if NATO does not go along, the senior official replied, ''I don't think we'll have to face that. Right now this looks like a winner, and people will want to make it work.''