THE Clinton White House has vacillated on the problem of Bosnia at every turn - always putting off or withdrawing from a leading role in the crisis on Europe's doorstep. But now the bill may be coming due. Lord Owen is planning to move negotiations to Sarajevo soon, and expectations are high for agreement on a partition plan. While President Clinton did not push hard to arm the Bosnians, as he said he would, and did not carry out airstrikes against the Serb aggressors, the one assurance Mr. Clinton consistently and publicly gave was a promise of 25,000 troops to enforce an agreement among Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. The US forces would join 25,000 European troops to help keep the sides apart.
The possibility of a signing in Sarajevo has the White House worried. Certainly it is in a dilemma. On the one hand, sending troops to keep the ``peace'' in Bosnia was never a good idea. Allowing American troops to ratify the borders of a state acquired through mass murder and territorial aggression would be a dangerous precedent. Further, the troops themselves could easily get bogged down in the quagmire all seek to avoid. The introduction into the Balkans of Western forces that might actually fight if confronted -
which US troops would probably do - is a recipe for suspicion, intrigue, and conflict.
On the other hand, if Clinton backs off his promise and does not send troops, his own international stature and United States credibility will be further weakened. American voters will probably not rise up. After all, who wants to send sons and daughters on an ignoble mission more dangerous than the effort in Somalia? But in foreign capitals and among many at home and abroad, it will be asked if the American president is a man who can keep his word, and who understands he is the leader of the world community.
Officially the White House is ``absolutely'' committed to troops. But a strategy of deniability is emerging. For the first time Clinton has tied troops to congressional approval. But he is not selling the idea. In May, Clinton's ``lift and strike'' option had bipartisan support so long as the president ``articulates'' his policy to Americans, as Sen. Robert Dole (R) put it. Both hawks and doves now question sending the 25,000.
If Clinton wants troops in Bosnia he must build a consensus. Since he has not, the president seems to have made his choice, even if he makes a token effort on the Hill. Thus the US is at another crossroads in Bosnia: act forcefully through some form of intervention; or continue to stay outside the fray as the ethnic situation, which has deteriorated under the UN, deteriorates further, as it now is doing.
Clinton has many domestic initiatives - health care, NAFTA, government reform. But before disengaging from Bosnia, he must look again at the larger stakes of inaction in Europe.