DEFENSE Secretary William Perry dramatically expanded the role of US troops in Bosnia this weekend, but whether the Clinton administration is engaging in dangerous ''mission creep'' or strategic ''mission evolution'' may only become clear in the heat of this summer's presidential campaign.
Experts predict that six months from now, Mr. Perry's decision to have US troops escort war crimes investigators to mass graves will either be seen as the step that brought long-term stability to Bosnia or the miscalculation that led to another US peacekeeping debacle overseas.
In the short term, Perry's offer will result in intense pressure to involve US troops in nonmilitary tasks - from protecting civilians to providing security for coming elections. How US forces aid The Hague-based International War Crimes Tribunal will show whether political concerns or military reality is guiding the Clinton administration in Bosnia.
Aiding the Tribunal may be a far larger operation than US officials envision. Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier says investigators will be asking US troops to not only escort war crimes investigators to suspected graves sites, but also guard the sites until spring to prevent Bosnian Serbs from destroying evidence.
''We will ask them to protect the areas until our teams can go in during the spring and perform a proper exhumation,'' Chartier told the Monitor. ''We will be asking for protection, transportation, communications.... It's going to be a very comprehensive proposal.''
The Tribunal's chief prosecutor, Judge Richard Goldstone, will be meeting with new NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and NATO commander Gen. George Joulwan on Jan. 19 to make the request, Chartier says.
Experts say the graves issue is a litmus test of whether the Clinton administration and the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) have learned from past mistakes in international peacekeeping.
''There's going to be tremendous pressure for the military commanders to move beyond the primary task of separating the two forces,'' says Patrick Glynn, an analyst at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. ''The trick is finding what's doable and not moving beyond that.''
Mr. Glynn and other experts warn that two separate dynamics pose a threat to the Bosnia mission. Politicians can try to micro-manage a military operation with disastrous results as they did in Vietnam. Or ground commanders eager to achieve highly visible successes can expand the scope of a mission and suffer casualties, as occurred in the American attempt to capture Somali strongman Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed in 1993.
James Schear, a fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns that exhuming graves will put IFOR under pressure to mount a manhunt for the top Bosnian Serb leadership.
''If you're going to start documenting the brutalities, you're going to have to deal with the fact that there are indicted war criminals running around,'' Mr. Schear says. ''It's a slippery slope, but I think there are longer-term benefits to sliding down that slope.''
Exhuming the graves could make the situation far more explosive or stabilize it. According to Schear, exhuming the graves could turn the Bosnian Serb public, most of whom appear not to believe massacres occurred, against indicted Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.
But exhuming the graves could put US troops in a direct confrontation with the most extreme elements of the Bosnian Serb military. If the US agrees to guard the grave sites, US troops will be setting up new camps or aggressively patrolling roads in potentially dangerous locations.
US intelligence sources have identified six mass graves around the fallen UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica in the US zone of protection that are believed to hold as many as 2,700 bodies. The Monitor visited four of the sites. Three of them are in narrow valleys where a US base camp would be vulnerable to potential attack. The fourth is located next to a dam that the Serbs consider a military facility.
The Bosnian Serbs were seen by US spy planes excavating one Srebrenica grave in late October. Last week, The New York Times reported that a mine in the town of Ljubija is being used to destroy bodies being exhumed from graves all over Bosnia.
British commanders are opposed to taking control of the sites and former concentration camps in their zone of control.