WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, shifting closer to the European view on military action in the Balkans, is reluctantly considering dispatching U.S. troops to protect United Nations-designated "safe areas" in Bosnia, officials say.
Earlier this week, senior administration officials dismissed a European call for Americans to contribute to the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), which has been guiding relief convoys and moving to protect Muslim enclaves.
The United States remains cool to the idea, officials said, believing that effective protection of the enclaves would require a large troop deployment.
A senior administration official said the United States continues to advocate President Clinton's own approach of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims and using air strikes to prevent an all-out Serbian offensive in the meantime.
But, because of Mr. Clinton's commitment to acting in concert with European allies, the official said, "the United States is forced to consider an alternate proposal from the French" that would require the United States to join in an expanded UNPROFOR.
France has called for the expanded force to draw troops from four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: France, the United States, Britain and Russia.
The proposal, first sent to the United States Sunday by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, was disclosed yesterday in a memo circulated in the Security Council.
France proposed changing the UNPROFOR mandate from a purely humanitarian mission to one of deterring aggression in the "safe areas," backed by air power and up to 40,000 troops if necessary. There are about 23,500 UNPROFOR troops in all of the former Yugoslavia.
French options ranged from a "light option" that would merely deter aggression to a "heavy option" that would use force to combat armed incursions or shelling of safe areas.
Mr. Clinton has voiced misgivings about the whole concept of protected enclaves. However, the United States supported a unanimous Security Council resolution last week that designated Sarajevo and four other towns as "safe areas," and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright used the occasion to warn Serbs about allied use of force if they flouted that and previous resolutions.
The fact that the United States is even weighing the French proposal shows how far Mr. Clinton is being pulled in the European direction on trying to solve the Balkan crisis after getting no support for his own plan of combining the arming of Bosnian Muslims with air power.
Mr. Clinton, at a news conference yesterday, ignored a question about whether the United States would join in protecting havens, but continued to stress that since the Balkan conflict is a European problem, the United States would not act alone in trying to solve it.
Yesterday, the president amended his previous refusal to dispatch U.S. troops into Bosnian hostilities. He said that U.S. ground forces would not join the war "in behalf of one of the belligerents."
His new terminology would not rule out a neutral role.
Pressure on the United States to join peacekeeping forces already in the Balkans may increase next week if the United Nations Security Council agrees to deploy monitors along the Bosnian-Serbian border to test Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's embargo on Bosnian Serbs.
Mr. Clinton, endorsing the border-monitoring plan, said, "At this point there has been no suggestion that we would be asked to be part of those forces."
But U.N. forces have already been stretched by their efforts both escort relief convoys into besieged areas and to protect "safe xTC areas" designated by the Security Council with U.S. support.
Another 480 troops will be needed just to monitor the Serbian border checkpoints, U.N. officials say; many more would be needed actually to interdict cargo. Western diplomats said that they expect Russia to supply many of the monitors.
As he grappled yesterday with shifting military prospects, Mr. Clinton angrily rejected charges of indecision and lack of leadership in the crisis.
Ticking off results that he said the United States already had achieved through its Balkan policy, he said:
"We agreed to go to the Vance-Owen peace process and two of the three parties signed on, we got enforcement of the no-fly zone, we began to engage in multinational humanitarian aid, we got much, much tougher sanctions, we got the threat of military force on the table as a possible option, Milosevic changed his position -- all because this administration did more than the previous one.
"And I realize it may be frustrating for all of you to deal with the ambiguity of this problem, but it is a difficult one. I have a clear policy. I have gotten more done on this than my predecessor did, and maybe one reason he didn't try to do it is because if you can't force everybody to fall in line overnight, the people that have been fighting each other for centuries, you may be accused of vacillating. We're not vacillating, we have a clear, strong policy."