The Clinton administration is being confronted again by the "B" word, US involvement in faraway Bosnia. The president is under pressure to reconsider his promise to bring home American soldiers deployed there as part of a NATO peace-enforcing mission by the end of this year - a decision he had hoped to avoid until after the election campaign.
Senior military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials have joined a chorus of independent analysts. They say that some sort of multinational contingent will have to replace the 60,000-member NATO force in Bosnia to avert a collapse of the US-led peace agreement brokered in Dayton, Ohio, last November.
"In general terms, the continued participation of the United States in some fashion is a precondition by many countries for their continued participation," Gen. Patrick Hughes, Defense Intelligence Agency chief, told a Senate committee last week.
Such claims confront Mr. Clinton with a serious dilemma. By refusing to extend the US deployment in Bosnia, he denies his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, an emotive campaign issue.
On the other hand, a failure to replace the contingent with an effective successor mission could plunge Bosnia back into all-out war. That would represent a massive US foreign policy catastrophe. Clinton would be held responsible for the repercussions, which could range from war spreading in the Balkans to a massive erosion in confidence in Washington's commitment to other international undertakings and its leadership of NATO.
NATO officials say no decision on a replacement mission will be taken until after Bosnia holds elections mandated by the Dayton Accords on Sept. 14. But many experts believe Clinton will ultimately be compelled to reverse course and contribute US forces and leadership to a replacement mission, despite US suggestions that it be undertaken by the Western European Union (WEU), a European defense alliance of limited capabilities. France, Britain, and other countries have made it clear they will withdraw their forces if the US pulls out all of its 18,000 soldiers.
"No one favors just a European operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina after December," Antonio Manuel Victorino, the defense minister of Portugal, asserted on a recent visit to Washington.
Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's ambassador to the UN, says his government also believes US troops should remain. "Not only do they have to stay, but the US has to take steps ... that commit them to seeing through what is now the a la carte implementation of Dayton," he insists.
It is the inconsistent implementation of the peace accords that is fueling the growing consensus that a successor contingent of some kind will have to replace the NATO forces.
While the military provisions of the accord have been successfully fulfilled, there has been little movement on critical provisions to avert the permanent ethnic partition of Bosnia, something that many experts warn will lead to renewed bloodletting.
Tens of thousands of refugees have been unable to return to their homes, and there is no freedom of movement between the Bosnian Serb territory of Republika Srbska and the federation formed by Bosnia's Muslims and Croats, itself badly riven with tensions. Nor has there been major economic reconstruction.
Furthermore, the ruling Muslim, Croat, and Serb nationalist parties have used the breathing space provided by the NATO mission to consolidate their control of the media and security forces to ensure they face weak opponents in the elections.
NATO has refused to enforce implementation of the civilian provisions, including arresting indicted war criminals like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
"[NATO] has done very little in terms of actually implementing the Dayton Accords. As a result, the war has continued by non-military means," says Marshall Harris of the Washington-based Balkans Institute.