WASHINGTON -- After struggling for 2 1/2 years to find a Balkans policy that works, President Clinton is seeing control over U.S. policy toward embattled Bosnia slip from his grasp.
A sizable vote to lift the embargo, which is likely as early as today, would severely undercut the president's freedom of action in a situation that is deteriorating rapidly and make it even more difficult for him to reach agreement with European allies on new steps to protect Bosnian civilians.
Those who favor lifting the embargo say it would allow the Bosnians to defend themselves and fight to win back control of their nation, which was recognized by the United Nations, then overrun by Bosnian Serb aggressors.
But the Senate action would raise major new questions about the future of the Balkans and pose political risks for both Mr. Clinton and the man who is leading the Capitol Hill drive, Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential aspirant Bob Dole.
Since the war erupted in April 1992, members of Congress have condemned atrocities by the Serbs and inaction by the United States and its European allies. But Congress has been reluctant to move decisively into the Bosnian morass.
The closest it came was last year, forcing the administration to halt a U.S. military blockade in the Adriatic Sea off the Yugoslav coast that prevented Bosnian Muslims from getting small-arms deliveries.
But with the United States and its closest allies squabbling publicly over how to respond to the latest Bosnian Serb burst of ethnic cleansing, congressional frustration has reached critical mass.
And by leaving decisions on future action largely up to the European nations with peacekeepers deployed on the ground in Bosnia, the Clinton administration has allowed a leadership vacuum to develop.
"Over the last three years, we have witnessed a 7/8 lowest-common-denominator approach in the United Nations, in NATO, among our allies, and in U.S. policy-making. Every policy decision seems to be reduced to what Winston Churchill would have described as 'mush, gush and slush,' " Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn said in a Senate floor speech yesterday even as he spoke against Mr. Dole's move to end the embargo.
By gaining bipartisan support and waiting until the worst moment for Bosnia this year, Mr. Dole may muster a veto-proof majority in support of lifting the embargo, some Senate vote-counters say, delivering a stinging blow to the administration.
In the House, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, is pressing for a floor vote on the same measure soon after the Senate votes.
The administration struggled desperately to head off congressional action yesterday. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry lobbied senators while White House press secretary Mike McCurry called the Dole legislation "just a nutty idea at this time."
Officials also tried to show that after a week-long impasse, some agreement with the Europeans to strengthen U.N. peacekeepers and protect Bosnian civilians may be at hand.
Mr. Christopher told reporters that Mr. Clinton would talk with British Prime Minister John Major and French President Jacques Chirac in the next 24 hours in an effort to develop a plan of action in Bosnia.
The Dole bill would postpone lifting the embargo until after U.N. peacekeepers had left Bosnia or 12 weeks after the Bosnian government asked them to leave.
Many critics, inside and outside the administration, see the bill as typical of attempts by Congress to legislate foreign policy.
"In Congress, simple ideas sell," said Patrick Glynn, a foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who said members haven't faced up to the consequences of their actions.
"The administration understands the problem and doesn't know what to do," he said. "Congress wants to do something but doesn't understand the problem."
One problem most members haven't faced is that lifting the arms embargo will inevitably lead to the dispatch of U.S. ground troops, Sen. Nunn said yesterday.
"If passed as written, this would send a loud signal that Congress is prepared to advocate a course of action but is not prepared to back it up," Mr. Nunn said.
Mr. Nunn reminded Congress that Britain and France, the nations with the largest number of troops in the U.N. force, have repeatedly threatened to end the peacekeeping mission if the arms embargo is lifted. And Mr. Clinton is committed to help withdraw the peacekeepers. A NATO extraction plan calls for about 80,000 troops, 25,000 of them American. Pentagon planners say withdrawal would likely cost American lives.
"If U.S. forces are killed, Dole will share responsibility," said Mr. Glynn.
The majority leader has said he would support U.S. participation in a U.N. pullout, but would insist that Serbian anti-aircraft batteries be knocked out beforehand and that Americans be able to respond with overwhelming force if attacked.
It remains unclear whether a majority in Congress would be willing to approve the use of U.S. troops in Bosnia under any circumstances. Deprived of political backing, Mr. Clinton would be forced to act on his own to keep a commitment to U.S. allies.
Even Mr. Dole acknowledges that the Bosnian Muslims will face a "sticky" period after a U.N. pullout when, before new arms deliveries get under way, they are still outgunned by Serbian forces.
U.S. forces could be confronted with a serious question as they guide U.N. troops out of Bosnia: Will they then abandon Muslim civilians and a poorly trained government army to the mercy of the better-equipped Serbs?
In the end, many members of Congress will shrink from forcing the president's hand, predicts Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
Even if the Dole bill wins a veto-proof majority, "There will be a desire to sit down and say, 'What can we salvage?' "
"I believe at the end of the day there will be some kind of bipartisan or nonpartisan agreement to lift the embargo. But a strong message is necessary to get the administration off the dime," said Mr. McCain.