WASHINGTON -- Whenever President Clinton looks at Bosnia, his options range from bad to worse.
The least perilous choice, from Mr. Clinton's standpoint, was the one he settled on yesterday: a decision to help the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia move to new positions or perhaps withdraw, even at the risk of putting U.S. troops in harm's way.
This has already produced concern in Congress that the result could be a conflict from which the United States could not easily withdraw.
"In general I'm very leery of putting American combat troops in Bosnia," says Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. His constituents, he says, tell him: "Stay out of Bosnia."
Mr. Clinton's risks have been increased by recent actions of the Bosnian Serbs. Their forces already hold more than 370 U.N. troops hostage, and could force the U.N. and American troops to give up their assigned roles as referees to become combatants.
And as the thinly spread U.N. force concentrates into more defensible positions, it may be forced to stop protecting some Muslim enclaves, leaving them more vulnerable to Serb attacks.
But for Mr. Clinton, the alternative to offering U.S. military help was even grimmer: Had he not offered assistance, the White House would have broken faith with U.S. allies that have already contributed troops to the U.N. force and perhaps given the U.N. troops no choice but to withdraw. Such action, Mr. Clinton said yesterday, could bring "an even worse humanitarian disaster."
Part of the probable disaster would be the fate of the U.N. troops themselves. Planners foresee a retreating U.N. force becoming the targets of every party to the conflict and requiring protection by about 20,000 U.S. ground troops.
For now, the U.N. forces will only be shifting themselves to new, presumably more defensible observation points. That may dampen the fighting and maintain the flow of aid into Bosnia, but will almost surely not end the fighting between Bosnia's Serbs on one side and, on the other, Bosnia's Muslims and Croats.
In hopes of obtaining a lasting peace, the United States and its allies have already adopted a policy they had once rejected: They are trying to entice Slobodan Milosevic, president of neighboring Serbia, to act as an ally.
Mr. Milosevic is widely viewed as the inspiration for the Bosnian Serbs' drive to create a Greater Serbia through "ethnic cleansing" -- killing or uprooting hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Croats.
But now he has tired of the punitive economic sanctions the U.N. imposed on his country as punishment, or so U.S. officials hope. If he can be persuaded to recognize the borders of a Muslim-dominated Bosnia, and prevent military supplies from reaching the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs will be forced to agree to peace, according to diplomats.
The United States and its European allies are prepared to give Mr. Milosevic a large reward for his cooperation: a suspension of most sanctions against his country.
But not everyone believes that Mr. Milosevic can persuade his Bosnian Serb brethren to lay down their guns.
Nor can U.S. officials be sure that Bosnia's Muslim-led government, which has been improving its battlefield strength recently, won't seize the chance to regain lost territory. Finally, there is a risk that, once Bosnia is quiet, Mr. Milosevic will simply move his campaign for a Greater Serbia in another direction.
Mr. Clinton's advisers say this is far better than the options the president has already rejected.
One is to lift the arms embargo. Favored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican who is running for president, it would allow the United States to act on its own to arm the Bosnian government.
President Clinton has always called the arms embargo unfair to the Muslims but has refused to act alone to lift it. Aides say that doing so would weaken support for U.N. sanctions against other countries, such as Iraq.
A second rejected option was to involve NATO more deeply. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, another Republican presidential candidate, has favored using NATO forces, including troops from the United States, to overpower the warring factions and put an end to the conflict.
U.S. military officials have long argued that such a move, to be effective, would require tens of thousands of ground troops, fighting indefinitely in difficult, mountainous terrain.
So far, NATO power has been used sparingly to bomb Serbian targets at the request of the United Nations. This tactic hasn't stopped Serb aggression, however, and prompted last week's hostage seizures.
A third was for the administration to do nothing. This, many analysts say, would tear at the NATO alliance and encourage a spillover of the war into Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria and eventually drag the United States into a broader Balkan war.