LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major faces a Bosnian quagmire no American president would wish to confront.
Thousands of his British troops are in Bosnia as part of the United Nations Protection Force, and 34 of those British soldiers are now held captive by the army of the Bosnian Serbs. And support at home for his Balkans policy is eroding.
But before a hushed House of Commons yesterday, Mr. Major made his case for Britain's and the United Nations' continued involvement in Bosnia. The alternative, he told his critics during the emergency debate, could be "disastrous."
"Depart, and the dangers return," the prime minister said. "Could the West stand idly by and let such actions take place in Southeastern Europe? I doubt it, I truly doubt it.
"And would we ignore the threat of an all-out Balkan war? Again, I do not believe we would -- or should."
He grew angry when a member of his Conservative Party asked if the government would accept a Bosnian Serb offer to release the hostages in exchange for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's ruling out future airstrikes.
"I yield to no one in my wish to have those troops safely returned, but I am not entering into that sort of blackmailing deal," he said to cheers.
The exchange was a vivid reminder of the problems Mr. Major faces, even as he increases the number of British troops in the former Yugoslavia to nearly 10,000. While most members of the opposition Labor and Liberal Democratic parties favor an enhanced British role in Bosnia, members of Mr. Major's own party fear fear continued involvement may lead to disaster.
Mr. Major sought to allay fears that British forces would become trapped: "It must be made clear to the parties that, if they turned to all-out war, the protection forces would not be equipped to remain."
But some party members remained unmoved.
"Are you prepared to go to war?" former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath asked, urging caution. "The answer is no."
"This is a very difficult issue to get your mind around," said Labor's John Home-Robertson, who spent a month last year delivering relief supplies in Bosnia.
"You need more muscle," he said during a break in the debate. "The Bosnian Serbs keep upping the ante and getting away with it. And we can't hit back. We should have the wherewithal to say 'that's enough.' "
And who can supply the muscle?
"The Americans," he said.