WITH the first of some 20,000 US troops now in Bosnia-Herzegovina and President Clinton intent on sending the rest, congressional assent to American participation in the NATO-led peace-enforcement operation might seem academic.
But a Senate debate, expected to culminate Dec. 13 with votes on whether to back the US deployment, holds significant political consequences.
''The sending of American troops is not popular in the country and many members [of Congress] have their ear to the ground and are reluctant to go against public opinion on this,'' says Thomas Mann, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mr. Clinton has committed the US to providing one-third of the 60,000 troops who will enforce the US-brokered peace pact due to be signed Dec. 14 in Paris by the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. He says he doesn't need the approval of the GOP-led Congress, but has formally sought its support as a demonstration of US solidarity and leadership.
By opposing the deployment, lawmakers could insulate themselves from a backlash in next year's elections if the peace plan collapses and renewed fighting compels a NATO force to withdraw. Congressional rejection, however, could erode confidence in the United States among the Bosnian parties and NATO allies.
It could also have domestic fallout. Should the NATO mission succeed in giving the Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs the security to begin reconciling after almost four years of war, lawmakers who vote against US participation could be accused by rivals of betraying the cause of peace and the GIs poised to secure it.
''Soldiers on the ground who are at risk would like to know that their government and their people and their legislature, as well as their executive branch, are behind what they are doing,'' former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a spokesman for the newly formed Committee for American Leadership in Bosnia, said after meeting Dec. 11 with Clinton.
Likely congressional outcome
For that reason, what is expected to emerge from the Senate are votes holding Clinton solely accountable for the fate of the US deployment, while supporting the American troops who will help separate the Bosnian armies. That formula is embodied in a strategy plotted by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, who broke with many GOP colleagues and endorsed the president's plan despite having deep reservations.
Ambivalence endures among the public. A majority of Americans still opposes US involvement in Bosnia, although hard lobbying by the administration appears to have won converts in recent weeks. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll last week found that 49 percent of Americans wanted Congress to reject Clinton's plan, while 43 percent favored approval. In October, the poll charted opposition at 65 percent.
For lawmakers looking to cover themselves, Mr. Dole was expected to put to a vote a resolution sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, deploring Clinton's policy, but backing US troops. A vote was also expected on a resolution sponsored by Dole and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona denying congressional authorization for the US deployment. Rather, it permits Clinton to ''go forward'' with his commitment to send troops to the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR).
It would also attach conditions. The key one would hold Clinton to his plan for withdrawing US troops after a year. That exit strategy envisions the creation of a military balance in Bosnia through arms cuts by Bosnian Serb rebels and the US-supervised arming and training of the Muslim-led Bosnian army.
The Bosnian army would have to be given arms ''of the highest possible quality'' in an ''immediate effort separate and apart'' from IFOR, a draft of the resolution said. Within 30 days of the Dec. 14 peace accord signing, Clinton would have to detail the program in a report to Congress.
In a letter to congressional leaders this week, Clinton reiterated his intention to have the US ''coordinate'' the arming and training of the Bosnian army. US officials have said the actual program would probably be conducted by ''third countries'' to avoid compromising NATO's neutrality.
A team of US military and private experts returned Dec. 8 from a trip to Bosnia to assess the Bosnian army's needs. While numerically superior, the Muslim-led force sorely lacks equipment and heavy weapons.
No 'mission creep'
Another condition in the Dole-McCain resolution is aimed at averting ''mission creep'' by barring the use of US troops for anything other than the tasks outlined in the peace pact negotiated in Dayton, Ohio. Those tasks are enforcing the disengagement of the Bosnian foes, monitoring a resulting ''zone of separation,'' ensuring agreed territorial swaps, and safeguarding refugees.
The Dole-McCain resolution would also require Clinton to give Congress reports on the progress of the NATO mission and civilian efforts to rebuild Bosnia's ravaged infrastructure, repatriate refugees, and bring war criminals before the UN War Crimes Tribunal. The reports would have to be updated every 60 days.
Whether the House will go along with the Senate remains unclear. Opposition to the US deployment is considerable. Last week, 184 members signed a one-line letter to Clinton that said: ''We urge you not to send ground troops to Bosnia.''
Congress would hold Clinton to his plan for withdrawing US troops after a year and arming the poorly equipped Bosnian Muslims.