WASHINGTON -- Faced with mounting allied criticism and the threatened collapse of NATO, President Clinton yesterday agreed to send U.S. ground troops to Bosnia to aid the United Nations if it orders an evacuation of its peacekeepers.
Republican critics of the administration's Bosnia policy demanded that congressional leaders be briefed on the number of troops that would be deployed, the prospects of resistance, the rules of engagement and the lines of command.
"Under no circumstances should any American forces be subject to United Nations decisions on their manner of operations, rules of engagement, or ability to defend themselves," said Sen. Bob Dole, who is in line to be the next Senate majority leader.
The Kansas senator said he favors a U.N. evacuation because it would clear the way for increased airstrikes on the Bosnian Serbs and for ending the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims.
No evacuation has been ordered. But NATO planners are stepping up their preparations for the withdrawal of the United Nations' 23,000 troops as they face increasing danger in Bosnia from escalating Serbian attacks.
Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, played down the likelihood of an evacuation and said the latest policy change could force the warring parties to resume negotiations.
He asserted that Mr. Clinton's announcement demonstrated U.S. solidarity with its European allies.
"Our hope is that there will be a negotiated settlement to the Bosnian situation," Mr. Panetta said. "But because the peacekeepers are there, and that kind of contingency could arise, the question was, 'Would the U.S. participate with our allies in that effort?' And the answer to that was, it would."
"The challenge of withdrawal is formidable," said a senior administration official, noting that, apart from the troops, 8,000 U.N. vehicles and thousands of tons of supplies would have to be trucked out to keep them out of the hands of the warring factions.
According to the Pentagon, as many as 18,000 U.S. troops could be sent to the danger zone. Their task would presumably be to break through possible armed and civilian resistance to enable the departure of the "Blue Berets," who are scattered throughout the country, many of them surrounded by Serbian forces and more than 300 of whom are held hostage by the Serbs.
Though the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslims have said that they would not impede a U.N. evacuation should one be ordered, U.S. officials said planning includes the prospect of having to extricate the troops from a "high-threat hostile environment."
Even under the best conditions, an evacuation could take weeks.
A senior Pentagon official, briefing reporters yesterday, said the United States would provide about half the troops. But the official declined to be more precise about the number, other than to say that the total force would be "a single digit number of brigades."
An average U.S. brigade consists of 3,000 to 4,000 troops. Pentagon planners have not yet identified the U.S. units that would be involved, but they would likely come from bases in Europe and the United States.
The forward-based divisions in Europe are the 1st Armored and the 3rd Infantry Mechanized, each of which has two combat brigades. In the United States, the first in line to send troops would likely be units of the 24th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry.
The official denied that the commitment represented a policy reversal. He said the administration, while refusing to commit combat troops, would be willing to send peacekeepers once a peace agreement has been signed. Noting that the evacuation force would leave with the U.N. troops, he said Mr. Clinton had "now clarified that if [the United Nations] withdraws, that is another circumstance that would justify the temporary deployment of American forces."
The announcement of the U.S. commitment was made yesterday to allay allied fears that the United States would not take part in an evacuation.
"The president decided that he would clear up any ambiguity on this point by assuring our allies that this would go forward as a NATO operation, and . . . they could count on American participation not just in the planning but in the execution of this plan," said the official.
The earlier U.S. refusal to put ground combat troops alongside endangered U.N. peacekeepers has been loudly criticized by allies, who have also objected to U.S. demands for heavier NATO airstrikes against the Serbs that could have endangered U.N. troops on the ground.
Mr. Clinton's decision was announced 24 hours after French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe publicly criticized "governments that want to give us lessons when they have not lifted a little finger to put even one man on the ground." It was a clear reference to the United States.
The French, in recent days, have escalated their threats of withdrawal. A French diplomat here said the goal was to pressure the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims to the negotiating table before the Republican majority takes over the U.S. Congress next month. The Republicans favor stronger U.S. unilateral action to help the Muslims, which the French see as prolonging the war.
The evacuation threat, in the French view, confronts the Muslims with the likelihood of military defeat and the Serbs with the near certainty of escalating NATO airstrikes, giving both sides an incentive to talk.
While prepared to send U.S. troops to join an evacuation force, the Clinton administration does not favor U.N. withdrawal, if only because of the humanitarian contribution the peacekeepers are making in protecting aid convoys.
Officials hope an evacuation plan might persuade countries to keep their peacekeepers in Bosnia while diplomatic pressure is increased.
"If they know that there are plans in place under a variety of contingencies to extricate those forces, it may give them the reassurance they need to continue their present mission," said the senior official.
The administration's decision comes less than a week before a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, Belgium, that had promised to be extremely tense, absent the U.S. commitment to come to the rescue of the allies' peacekeepers.
"We have a vital interest in the preservation of this alliance," said the administration official. "It is a test of alliance solidarity."
At the meeting, NATO defense ministers and military chiefs will examine possible post-evacuation scenarios, which could include an end to the arms embargo, enabling the Bosnian Muslims to put up a stronger fight, and an escalation of NATO airstrikes against the Serbs to force them into peace talks.