FEW foreign wars have generated so much debate and so much public indifference in the US as the the four-year-old conflict in Bosnia. While some Americans are intensely interested in the conflict, many have grown weary of a brutal, far-off war that appears intractable. Whatever the public sentiment, events in Bosnia over the next few weeks could have a direct and possibly tragic impact on thousands of Americans.
AMERICAN LIVES: President Clinton has offered to send 25,000 troops to help withdraw UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. US soldiers would be vulnerable to attacks. Any deaths of Americans would fire domestic debate over whether the US has a vital security interest in Bosnia.
AMERICAN AIRCRAFT: France, prompted by the fall of UN-protected Muslim ''safe areas'' to the Bosnian Serb army, proposes that US helicopters ferry French troops to surrounded Muslim cities inside Serb territory, making US pilots vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.
AMERICAN ALLIES: With more than 10,000 British and French troops serving as UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, anger is rising in Paris and London at US occasional reluctance to back its most important allies. NATO may be destablized and its role diminished in keeping Europe at peace.
AMERICAN GUNS: The US could become the principal arms supplier to the Muslim-led Bosnian army if it decides to end its support of the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian government. How the weapons would be delivered to Bosnia is unclear, but the risky operation could involve Americans and cost millions of dollars.
AMERICA AND RUSSIA: The international community's paralysis in Bosnia has been frequently caused by angry division between pro-Serb Russia and the pro-Bosnian US. In the event of a UN pullout, an eerily familiar scenario could arise: the US giving weapons and advice to the Bosnians on one side and Russia giving weapons and advice to the Serbs on the other.
AMERICA AND ISLAM: Bosnia, a country with a Muslim majority, has become the Islamic world's cause celebre and the best example of what many Muslims see as a US double standard. Since the war began, Muslims have questioned whether the US would allow a Christian population to suffer the deaths, brutality and ''ethnic cleansing'' Bosnia's Muslims have. Each new abuse of Bosnia's Muslims is grist for hundreds of anti-US Islamic preachers. Some Islamic nations may even send forces to Bosnia.
AMERICA AND TERRORISM: The more the Bosnian Serbs gain from taking Western UN peacekeepers as hostages, the more renegade groups around the world may be emboldened to do the same. Critics say UN willingness to negotiate with the Serbs after they take peacekeepers hostage is unraveling work done in the 1980s to show that hostage taking does not pay. Acquiescing to Serbs may mean dealing with more hostage-taking in the future.
AMERICAN IDEALS: Nationalism, racism, genocide, and numerous other forces are thriving in Bosnia, and run counter to US ideals. Failure to stop such forces, especially in Europe, could help them spread, leading to greater US involvement elsewhere and diminish the US role as a world leader in noble ideals.
PLAYERS IN THE BOSNIAN WAR
THE most powerful group in the former Yugoslavia. The heart of the conflict in Bosnia is the refusal of Orthodox Christian Serbs there to live in a new state that is majority Muslim. The same is true in Croatia, where the Serb minority refuses to be part of a new state that is majority Croat (Roman Catholic).
The Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia point to the fact that tens of thousands of Serbs were killed by a Croat-run, pro-Nazi regime in the Balkans during World War II. Serbs say they will face persecution if they agree to live in majority-Muslim Bosnia or majority-Croat Croatia.
Detractors say the Serbs are taking advantage of the chaos following Yugoslavia's collapse, seizing as much land as possible in Bosnia and Croatia. The Serbs in Bosnia (referred to as Bosnian Serbs) make up 30 percent of Bosnia's population, but control 70 percent of the country. The Bosnian Serbs reject a peace plan that would give them 49 percent of Bosnia. Critics call the Bosnian Serbs ''fascists'' for establishing death camps early in the war, shelling civilians, expelling or ''ethnically cleansing'' tens of thousands of non-Serbs from their territory, and taking hundreds of peacekeepers hostage.
''We are defending Europe from Islamic fundamentalism.''
THE weakest of the former Yugoslavia's three main groups Bosnia's internationally recognized, Muslim-led government is seen as the most tolerant of the three groups, but anti-Serb mood is rising as the war drags on. Unlike Serbs and Croats, Bosnians are not a homogenous ethnic group.
The Muslim-led government declared Bosnia independent in the spring of 1993. The government says it is being denied the right to defend itself because of the three-year-old UN arms embargo. The Bosnian government has three times as many troops as the Bosnian Serbs, but approximately 15 tanks compared with more than 300 owned by the Bosnian Serbs.
The Bosnian government has used UN ''safe zones'' as staging grounds for offensives. The Serbs took the safe zone of Srebrenica last week after the Bosnian Army launched a raid from there. UN food aid is routinely diverted by the Bosnian government to feed the Bosnian Army, but the Bosnian Serbs also divert UN aid to their troops. The Bosnian government has also been accused of trying to draw the West into the conflict by overplaying its role as a helpless victim.
''We don't need any American soldiers to set foot in Bosnia, we just need their guns.''
THE second most powerful group in the former Yugoslavia. Croatians, who are Roman Catholic, declared independence in 1991 and then fought a six-month war with the country's Serb minority, who now control nearly 30 percent of Croatia.
Under intense pressure from the US and Germany, the internationally recognized Croatian government gave up its dream of creating a ''Greater Croatia'' last March. Croats in Bosnia aligned themselves with Bosnia's Muslims in a ''federation'' against the Serbs. Croatia has waited three years for the West to broker a reintegration of the Serb-held areas, but is believed to be planning an offensive to take them back.
Serbs who still live in Croatia face regular discrimination. Despite saying they support the US-brokered ''federation'' with the Bosnian Muslims, Croat forces in Bosnia have not supported Muslim troops with their tanks and artillery. The Croat embargo on outside weapons getting to the Muslims is believed to be stronger than the United Nations embargo, as the Croats see a well-armed Muslim army in Bosnia as a possible future military threat.
''We fully support the federation.''
MORE THAN 30,000 troops from 30 countries are trying to limit fighting in the former Yugoslavia as diplomats try to broker peace. In theory, UN troops protect civilian safe areas in Bosnia and escort aid convoys. All major UN actions are dictated by five powers in the UN Security Council - the US, Britain, France, Russia - and behind the scenes, Germany.
Most observers agree that if the UN had not arrived in Bosnia, there would be no Muslim-led Bosnian government today. Bosnian Serb forces would have overrun the country and hundreds of thousands more Muslims could have died. UN presence and food aid has given the Bosnian government enough time to strengthen its Army and helped keep as many as 500,000 civilians in Sarajevo and other cities from starving.
UN officials in Bosnia accuse Britain, France, the US, and Germany of using the UN to look as if they are doing something in Bosnia, when they are in reality prepared to do little. According to critics, the UN has outlived its usefulness, and the Bosnian government would benefit more from a pullout of UN troops and lifting the UN arms embargo than Western/UN indecision.
''We are waiting for further guidance from the Security Council.''