It has long been a tradition for the president of the United States to pay Christmas visits to American troops deployed in far-flung corners of the globe.
This year, President Clinton will spend time with some of the 8,500 US peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But he will be bringing more than Yuletide cheer on his 12-hour foray to Tuzla and Sarajevo on Monday.
Mr. Clinton will also be asking a reluctant US military to stay beyond its scheduled exit date in June. It will be the second extension of the NATO-led operation that for two years has kept a shaky peace in Bosnia among Serbs, Muslims, and Croats after almost four years of war.
Clinton's decision, which he announced yesterday, comes amid strong congressional opposition and is an acknowledgment that the 1995 US-brokered peace plan remains unfulfilled. The overriding concern driving the decision is that a pullout could lead to a war that could spread through the Balkans, creating a divisive conflict in the middle of Europe.
The new force will be smaller than the current 32,000-strong contingent, but its size and mission length are still to be worked out by NATO.
Clinton's visit to Sarajevo - a symbol of Bosnia's prewar multiethnic amity - also provides a compelling stage from which he is expected to appeal anew to the American public to back a continued US role in Bosnia.
"The US is a necessary component of implementing the peace and maintaining order in Bosnia," asserts Kurt Basseuner of the Balkans Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Renewed bloodshed could be far more costly to contain. It would also represent a US foreign policy disaster that would call into question America's post-cold war commitment to European security - just as NATO grapples with the uncertainties of expanding into former communist Eastern Europe.
Moreover, a resumption of war in Bosnia would constitute the failure of a key initiative on which Clinton's legacy as an international statesman will be measured after he leaves office in 2000.
In deciding to participate in a new NATO force, Clinton maintains that enough progress has been made in implementing the 1995 Dayton peace accords to warrant a continued push toward their goal of maintaining a unitary Bosnian state.
"The progress [in Bosnia] is unmistakable," Clinton said at the White House yesterday, "but it is not yet irreversible."
Indeed, many officials insist the progress is tangible. "There are still problems, there is still resistance and unacceptable behavior on all sides," says one administration official. "But I don't think ordinary people want to go back to war. It's a new dynamic in comparison to where it was before."
In the latest sign of what the official called a fresh resolve to advance the peace plan, yesterday US troops backed Dutch commandos in arresting two Bosnian Croats wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal. One suspect was wounded in the snatch operation, the second of its kind since July.
No American soldier has been lost to hostile action, but domestic support for the US deployment is weak. Opposition has grown in the GOP-run Congress, where lawmakers have lambasted Clinton for twice reneging on deadlines he set for an American troop withdrawal. He is taking several congressional leaders with him to Bosnia in an effort to build support for his decision.
Congressional critics say the US deployment has hurt overall military readiness because of the diversion of more than $7 billion from the defense budget to pay for the Bosnia operation. Some also argue that there is no chance to heal Bosnia's war-fed hatreds and that the US should engineer a peaceful ethnic partition.
Such sentiments were shared by Defense Secretary William Cohen, a moderate former Republican senator, who only recently was brought around to supporting an extension of the mission.
The strongest expression of congressional ire came in June, when the House voted nearly 2-to-1 for legislation that would have required a US troop withdrawal by June 30, 1998. But with the NATO allies vowing to pull out if the US did, the Senate worked out a compromise allowing Clinton to keep American troops in Bosnia on national security grounds.
STILL, opponents warn a new attempt could be launched at any time to ending funding for the US deployment. Even supporters of the operation say greater efforts must be made to implement the Dayton accords, and in recent meetings have urged him to set specific goals for the new mission.
"There must be a program in place. Otherwise, to extend the mission is to extend misery," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. Clinton, he says, "must use this trip to indicate what our plan is."
In a sign that Clinton is heeding his critics, the US says the European allies should assume a greater share of the peacekeeping burden, and is pressing them to contribute to an expansion in a UN civilian police force.
The larger force would take on more responsibilities in the implementation of the Dayton accords' civilian provisions, major portions of which have yet to be fulfilled. They include the arrests of major war crimes suspects, including Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist who oversaw the Bosnian Serbs' drive to rip an ethnically "pure" state out of Bosnia.
Another key provision that remains unimplemented is the return of 1.2 million refugees to their homes. Progress, however, has been made. It includes the holding of four elections over the past two years, the most recent resulting in a denial for the first time of a majority for Mr. Karadzic's hard-line nationalist party in the parliament of the Serb-dominated half of the country.