WASHINGTON -- As shocking pictures of slain children and emaciated prisoners deepen a visceral desire for military action to save lives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, President Bush has been struggling to forge a response that will put the fewest U.S. combat forces in peril.
He has been moving closer to sending warplanes on patrol over the besieged former Yugoslav republic, even though U.S. military officials and defense analysts are increasingly doubtful that a limited operation would stem the violence against innocent civilians.
The military experts are reaching the conclusion that deploying overwhelming strength against Serbian forces across the Balkans may be the only effective way to disrupt their bloody campaign to create "a Greater Serbia."
But the Balkans imbroglio poses neither the geographic nor the political advantages that facilitated the stunning successes of Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. And many at the Pentagon and the White House don't want to execute such a massive commitment.
"You may have a momentary effect on the fighting, but you will not have stopped it," a senior U.S. military official said. "A winning strategy has to have a diplomatic focus to it. That's the best chance to get an enduring settlement of the conflict."
Mr. Bush made it clear on Friday that he had no desire, especially in an election year, to send "somebody else's son or somebody else's daughter into harm's way."
Pentagon officials worry that military involvement on a scale approaching the gulf war would be too costly in terms of U.S. lives, resources and political support at home, even if such action would prove more effective than combat air patrols over Bosnia.
"When we use forces, the expectation is going to be that it's a full national commitment to win quickly and minimize the casualties," said an Army war planner, who complained that the swiftly-concluded desert war against Iraq left Americans with unrealistic expectations of military power. "We can't hope that .. next time we'll fight a major war and have as few casualties."
The region's mountainous terrain, the guerrilla capabilities of the combatants and a deep-seated hatred among the warring groups would frustrate any large-scale military action, said military officers, who estimate that at least 50,000 troops would be needed to deal with Serb partisans. They are mindful that Nazi Germany's inability to wrest control of mountain roads from resistance fighters when it occupied Yugoslavia during World War II made even routine resupply operations a deadly undertaking.
"What we could do with a force, a big force, would be to drive
the level of fighting down to a smoldering guerrilla operation," said retired Army Gen. John R. Galvin, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supreme commander until June, in a television interview last week. "But we would continue to take casualties because the people who are fighting there are willing to keep going on."
Painful reminders last week of U.S. inaction during the Nazi Holocaust also underscore the historical reality that governments generally are reluctant to launch military action purely for humanitarian reasons.
For the United States, there has been no direct threat to its interests, unlike Iraq's bid to control almost half of the world's oil supplies.
But an indirect threat is taking hold in U.S. officials' thinking. Historically, the Balkans have proved to be Europe's tinderbox. A growing war in the middle of Europe, displacing millions, inevitably endangers the continent's overall security, particularly that of economically fragile states in the former Soviet bloc. And the United States has been the restorer and guarantor of European security through most of this century, having witnessed horrible aggression when it stood aside.
Yet, despite weeks of increasing pressure, U.S. officials have so far failed to win firm support for even limited military action from their chief allies on the United Nations Security Council, the British and French, and have yet to try seriously to win over the Russians and Chinese. In recent days, Mr. Bush has intensified efforts to get U.N. authorization for a limited use of force.
The military option under consideration involves using only sufficient forces to ensure the peaceful delivery of humanitarian aid to war-ravaged civilians -- a tough job on its own but nothing to compare with stopping the shooting altogether. Any ground troops to defend against attacks would have to be supplied by others, not the United States, Bush administration officials insist.
Britain has set an international peace conference on Yugoslavia for Aug. 26. Responding to calls for a military solution, British Prime Minister John Major said air power alone would be inadequate and voiced concern about the number of forces required and the level of civilian as well as military casualties.
"We are not dealing with an orthodox war, a single enemy, a front line, or clearly identifiable targets," he said recently. "Nor do I detect any support in Parliament or in public opinion for operations which would tie down large numbers of British forces in difficult and dangerous terrain for a long period."
The French are less opposed in principle. Their chief concern in part is that they don't want the United States to take the lead on European security, nor do they want U.N. forces to act with a tougher mandate than exists now, diplomats say.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has been cooperative, but he faces domestic pressure from a pro-Serb lobby that reflects Russia's historic ties to Serbia. China generally opposes use of force without a clear U.N. umbrella, or any U.N. involvement in the domestic affairs of another country, but might be persuaded to abstain, as it did on the war in the Persian Gulf.
Beyond the diplomatic morass, the ultimate goal of military intervention could be difficult to define.
At best, overflights by U.S. Navy and Air Force jets and other allied warplanes could intimidate Serbian fighters from the Yugoslav federal army and Bosnia's ethnic Serbs, driving them underground as cargo planes or any land convoys brought in relief supplies.
But the rules of engagement presumably would be defensive. Offensive action to destroy the heavy guns in the hills overlooking Sarajevo would likely exceed the limits of a combat air patrol mission. Moreover, fast-moving fighter planes would be ineffective in trying to eliminate rifle grenades and other small-arms fire.
"There are too many home-grown weapons, too many irregulars," the military official said. Serbian fighters "could put a mortar in the back end of an ambulance or fire it from [their] back yard."
Another option -- which is gaining support on Capitol Hill and elsewhere outside the Pentagon -- would use offensive air power against a variety of Serbian military targets in Bosnia, including communications facilities, weapons depots, oil reserves and all other means of supporting Serbian combat operations. Attacks also could be launched against bridges and rail links used by Serbian forces to move people to detention centers.
"This can be done with existing [naval and Air Force] assets in Europe and the Adriatic, but as a practical matter, you're going to have some difficulty making sure it works," said Frank Gaffney Jr., a defense official in the Ronald Reagan administration, who favors air strikes.
Yet another course of action would be direct air and guided-missile attacks on Belgrade, capital of Serbia, which spearheaded the siege after Bosnia declared its independence. Serbia and Montenegro are the only remaining members of the federation that was Yugoslavia.
"You've got to treat the disease at the source, so go after [Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic," said William J. Taylor, a retired Army colonel now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
If the Serbs ignore an ultimatum to cease their attacks and withdraw, allied warplanes should strike air defense radars, surface-to-air missile batteries and fighter aircraft, he said. Then, relying on intelligence and NATO target maps, fighter-bombers armed with precision-guided munitions could destroy facilities used to command and control roughly seven divisions of regular Serbian forces in Bosnia, he said.
Radio and television facilities could then be hit to cut off Serbian leaders from the public, whose support for the Milosevic regime is said to be weakening, Mr. Taylor suggested. "You keep upping the ante and then stop and talk," he said.
U.S. military officials cautioned that offensive strikes, while satisfying a desire to punish Serbian aggressors, would not have any lasting impact on the ethnic strife in Bosnia.
That is the imponderable that bedevils the president as he tries to weigh what action to take.