WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William J. Perry and his French counterpart called yesterday for the "strengthening" of United Nations troops in Bosnia, and they opened a search for "a third way" to avoid either a withdrawal or continued ineffectual peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia.
Mr. Perry and the French defense minister, Francois Leotard, meeting at the Pentagon, agreed on the importance of keeping the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia.
They decided to push NATO to examine ways to make them "more effective."
"What happened today is the beginning of a process of trying to find a third way," said a senior defense official.
"We are trying to find out: Is there, maybe, a third choice between staying with an ineffectual force or bailing out?"
Among the ideas discussed yesterday were regrouping the U.N. forces, re-equipping them with heavier weapons, and increasing NATO air strikes, which would involve U.S. planes.
The more aggressive emphasis was in contrast to the recent talk of allied evacuation. NATO this week is drafting plans for a possible pullout of the U.N. peacekeepers, who have been increasingly harassed and constricted by rebel Bosnian Serbs in recent weeks.
The two defense officials reaffirmed their openness to a withdrawal, if necessary. But the thrust of their exchange was on keeping the U.N. presence and strengthening the peacekeeping force.
The Clinton administration has been criticized for what opponents have described as policy reversals on Bosnia. Yesterday's shift by Mr. Perry came in the wake of Republican calls for more aggressive action against the Serbs, including a lifting of the arms embargo that has limited the flow of weapons to the Bosnian Muslims, and an increase in NATO air strikes against Serbian positions.
The Clinton administration will seek an endorsement of any reworked military plan from Congress, which will be under control of the Republicans next year.
The renewed emphasis on facing down the Bosnian Serbs and getting them to the negotiating table will be pursued by defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, this week. If a military plan can be agreed on, it will be presented to the United Nations for approval. The United Nations, which controls allied military operations in Bosnia, has been reluctant to escalate the action for fear of Serbian retaliation against the U.N. ground troops in Bosnia.
Administration officials say that the credibility of the United Nations, as well as of NATO, is on the line, and that this may make U.N. commanders readier to step up pressure on the Serbs.
"The U.N. is facing the situation here of damaging, total failure and pulling out, or trying to find some way to improve its operation," said a Pentagon official who asked not to be named.
Among the options advanced by Mr. Perry and Mr. Leotard yesterday were renewed NATO air strikes -- at U.N. request -- to protect humanitarian-aid convoys and to keep open a supply corridor to Sarajevo, one of the international "safe havens" that are under Serbian siege.
"That's a perfectly appropriate use of American air power and one in which American air power could be quite effective," Mr. Perry said. He added that NATO planes could also attack ground targets if the United Nations requested it.
Mr. Leotard said closer air support could be given to U.N. missions. The Bosnian Serbs have surface-to-air missiles, which would presumably have to be destroyed if the air campaign were to be expanded.
The two defense officials' options to improve the effectiveness of the U.N. presence in the Balkans conflict have pitfalls. Among the choices and the problems:
* Troop reinforcements and more weapons. Mr. Leotard acknowledged that commitment of more ground troops seems VTC "very unlikely." The lightly armed U.N. force could be supplied with heavier weapons, but these would increase the risk of direct conflict with the Serbs.
* Increasing the protection given to all humanitarian operations, including convoys. This, too, would heighten the risk of clashes with the Serbs. The Serbs have blocked the passage of most convoys through the areas they control, increasing the suffering with the onset of winter.
* Opening a safe-supply corridor from the Adriatic to Sarajevo. The route runs mainly through land held by the Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Only the immediate approaches to Sarajevo are in Serbian hands.
* Redeploying and restructuring the peacekeepers, who are scattered around Bosnia, into fewer, more-defensible positions. This would likely run into opposition from Bosnian Muslims, who would resent the withdrawal of protection from evacuated areas.
When the idea of "safe areas" was proposed, the United Nations said their protection would require some 25,000 peacekeepers. Member states provided only 7,600.
* Increasing security for the Sarajevo airport. This would mean clearing the flight-approach path, which now crosses Serbian-held territory and leaves planes open to ground fire.
At the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Zagreb, there was skepticism that the mission could be strengthened without increasing the 23,000 troops on the ground.
One official called the proposals from Mr. Perry and Mr. Leotard "extremely unrealistic." He added: "If they are planning to send us another 50,000 troops it's more realistic, but not with the troops we have."