WASHINGTON -- President Clinton made a first move yesterday to overcome congressional resistance to sending up zTC to 25,000 American ground troops into Bosnia to enforce a peace settlement, by holding a 90-minute meeting with congressional leaders.
But during the session the president was unable to answer the basic questions that will determine whether he will win congressional support: how many troops would be sent, how long they would remain and how much would the operation cost.
The session, which included Vice President Al Gore and the president's top national security advisers, marked the start of a major administration effort to gain backing for the use of American and European soldiers as heavily armed Balkan peacekeepers.
"I think it was good first step," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican and presidential aspirant who has been one of the harshest congressional critics of the administration's Bosnian policy.
He said that "as of now" he opposed dispatching U.S. peacekeepers, but noted that in the past Republicans have rallied around the president on national security matters.
Mr. Clinton pledged early in 1993 that if Bosnia's warring Serbs, Muslims and Croats reached a peace agreement, the United States would send ground troops to help enforce it.
Now that commitment suddenly looms as a realistic prospect. The warring parties have agreed on the broad outlines of a settlement and on a series of constitutional principles.
The toughest issue is who gets what territory -- and that remains unresolved. But in recent weeks Bosnian and Croat forces have recaptured enough land from the Serbs to create the roughly 50-50 territorial split proposed by international mediators.
As a result, the North Atlantic Council -- the political arm of the U.S.-led NATO alliance -- instructed military authorities yesterday prepare plans for the anticipated peacekeeping operation.
The council, meeting in Brussels, was expected to agree that the peacekeeping force would be under NATO command, backed up by a U.N. Security Council resolution, and equipped to use major force when necessary.
The primary mission of the troops will be to enforce the partition of Bosnia into separate Bosnian-Croat and Serb regions, NATO officials say.
President Clinton told the congressional leaders that both the credibility of the alliance and American standing in the world ride on U.S. participation in the peacekeeping force.
As the session opened, he expressed optimism.
"I can tell you that we are now seeing some serious discussions, with the possibility of a cease-fire, which I hope can be successfully concluded as a prelude to getting into the other details of the agreement," Mr. Clinton said.
The administration has been reluctant to give firm troop numbers and cost estimates until it gets a map of the territorial breakdown. One official expressed the added fear that if the administration disclosed figures, Congress might try to lock in those numbers through legislation.
But officials have estimated that the force would include 18,000 to 25,000 Americans and cost between $500 million and $1 billion. NATO officials say the operation would last for one year, meaning troops could be withdrawn before the 1996 presidential election.
Another problem involves the administration's hope that Russian forces will participate. U.S. officials want a Russian presence both to assuage the Serbs -- Russia's longtime allies -- and to ease Moscow's fears about a new NATO move into Eastern Europe. But Russia refuses to puts its troops under NATO command.
The Bosnia mission would send U.S. ground troops into historically explosive region that over the past four years has witnessed the worst European bloodshed since World War II.
Members of Congress have voiced concerns both over the risks to U.S. forces and over the kind of peace they would be required to enforce.
"My concern is, if there is an agreement, will it be a permanent peace, or just a pause into which we will send troops to be caught in a cross-fire?" said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former Vietnam POW.
As a result of heavy NATO bombing of Serb targets in recent weeks, American troops would be likely targets, he said. "The Serbs know whose side we're on."
Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who attended yesterday's White House session, predicted that the dispatch of U.S. peacekeepers would win bipartisan support.
He described the discussions as "very useful" and "positive in tone on both sides."
In recent decades, Congress has wrestled with conflicting pressures when confronted with sending U.S. troops overseas. Members insist on having a say in the decision, but often fear taking a vote and being held responsible.
At the same time, they have been reluctant to defy a commander in chief who is intent on using force.
Successive presidents of both parties have refused to accept the constitutionality of the 1973 War Powers Amendment limiting a president's power to send troops into combat. With its power of the purse, Congress can cut off the money needed to keep troops in action, but such a congressional is considered highly unlikely.