PRESIDENT Clinton embarks today on a whirlwind trip to Bosnia that the White House hopes will highlight United States interests in returning stability to the region, while providing a momentary distraction from proliferating problems at home.
The visit is intended as a morale-boosting show of support for US troops who are part of a 60,000-member NATO force deployed last month to guarantee a Nov. 21 peace agreement ending four years of fighting in Bosnia.
It's also likely to raise the spirits of many Bosnian Muslims, who appreciate the effort Clinton made in taking charge of peace efforts after a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia failed.
The potentially dangerous but largely ceremonial visit comes at a time when Clinton is besieged with problems at home, including a budget impasse with Republicans in Congress and mounting concerns over the veracity of Hillary Rodham Clinton's statements regarding the Whitewater affair and the 1993 firing of seven White House travel office employees.
Clinton's trip will include stops in Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Italy. In Bosnia he is expected to visit Tuzla, headquarters of the zone now occupied by the 20,000 US soldiers who make up one-third of IFOR, a NATO peacekeeping force.
A visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, was reportedly ruled out for safety reasons after a Serb-fired anti-tank rocket struck a tram in the center city on Tuesday, killing one and wounding 16.
''The purpose of the trip is to see th US troops who have been doing a very fine job helping the parties ensure compliance with the peace agreement,'' White House press spokesman Mike McCurry said Wednesday. ''The president is confident he will be protected.''
Stop in Zagreb
In Zagreb, Clinton will exhort Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to get on with the reunification of Mostar, where tensions between Bosnian Croats and Muslims led to partition in 1993 and now threaten implementation of the Dayton accord.
A senior Bosnian official says he believes Clinton is sincere when he says that, in addition to humanitarian concerns, the US has important interests in seeing the return of stability to Bosnia. These include preserving the credibility of NATO, America's leadership role in the military alliance, and avoiding a larger Yugoslav war that could draw two NATO powers, Greece and Turkey, into the vortex.
The official speculates that the US is also anxious to ''minimize'' the influence that Iran's fundamentalist Islamic regime acquired during the early stages of the war, when Western powers refused to take strong measures to stop Bosnian Serb onslaughts against the out-gunned Muslim-dominated Bosnian army.
To secure the visit, Clinton's exact itinerary is being withheld until he, a group of close advisers, a small congressional delegation, and a contingent of journalists are en route from Nashville, where Clinton will deliver a speech and attend a fund-raising event today.
''Every care is being take to protect the president,'' says one senior administration official, commenting cryptically on Mr. Clinton's high-security weekend journey.
A senior Bosnian government official speculates that the White House has decided to strike Sarajevo from the itinerary out of concern that Bosnian Serbs might try to exact vengeance for US-led NATO airstrikes in September or for the loss of Serb-controlled parts of Sarajevo under the US-brokered Bosnian peace agreement that was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, late last year.
The official says Clinton will confine his trip to greeting US troops at the headquarters of Task Force Eagle, the US component of IFOR, at the airport in Tuzla.
''We were concerned that by backing off, for reasons we are not going to find fault with, some maverick gunslinger will think he frightened Clinton off,'' the official says. ''That means that somebody may think they can set the agenda by pursuing those kinds of terrorist acts.''
The US soldiers are now in the fourth week of one of the largest and most complex peacekeeping missions ever undertaken. The NATO force will remain in Bosnia for at least one year to help implement an agreement that ends four years of fighting between warring factions in the former Yugoslavia.
Like most presidential trips, this one will have clear domestic implications. White House aides say the president will be on the lookout for positive news about the Bosnia deployment to include in his nationally televised State of the Union address later this month.
But one public opinion analyst says the trip may be of limited political utility.
''This is not a popular policy and people aren't paying as much attention to what is going on in Bosnia because it's not something they want to think about. So his going is not going to help him politically,'' says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in Washington.
Since the end of the cold war, presidential trips abroad have had less bearing on public approval ratings, notes Mr. Kohut, since ''there are no Communists to smite.
''His going is not a negative thing, but it's not going to change people's attitude toward him or the policy,'' Kohut says.
During the buildup to the Gulf war in 1990, President Bush paid a similar visit to American troops. Mr. Bush gave a speech to soldiers in Dhahran, the main staging area located in eastern Saudi Arabia, then traveled by helicopter to Army and Marine outposts in the desert.
Fighter jets, AWACS surveillance planes, and armed helicopters were employed to keep him safe. Comparable preparations are said to be in place for Clinton's visit on Saturday.
''Every care is being taken to protect the president,'' says one senior administration official.
THE decision not to visit Sarajevo is not likely to dampen many Bosnian Muslims' appreciation for Clinton, who took charge of peace efforts after a UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia failed.
''I believe that America is the leading force in the world and will witness the implementation of the Dayton agreement,'' says Ekram Ibruji, a Muslim who survived the Bosnian Croat siege of the Muslim-held east side of Mostar.