BUILT INTO the American system of checks and balances is a conflict between a president's authority as commander in chief to commit U.S. forces to battle and Congress' power of the purse to deny funds for such military operations.
The issue flared during the Vietnam war, giving rise to a War Powers Resolution asserting legislative prerogatives that every president since has rejected. It flared again during the Persian Gulf war and was resolved in a way that may be useful in the debate over sending more than 20,000 American troops to police a peace agreement in Bosnia.
Several questions need to be differentiated:
* The political clash now unfolding in Washington has little to do with Bosnia. Presidents still have the authority to dispatch forces without Congress' say-so, but the political risks of doing so are daunting, especially when casualties are in prospect. Therefore, Bill Clinton may yet follow George Bush's example by seeking legislative approval of a Bosnian peace-enforcement mission. What we don't know is how this matter could be resolved if Congress balks.
* What has a lot to do with Bosnia is a judgment call on whether vital U.S. interests are at stake in that latest of Balkan conflicts. On this, the Clinton administration has flip-flopped. After first holding aloof, it now contends that a U.S. refusal to send troops would undermine NATO, provoke a worldwide loss of faith in U.S. leadership and possibly unleash a wider war.
* If the future of NATO is at stake, then the Washington Establishment needs to focus on whether the alliance in its present form is irrelevant, whether it makes sense to seek a new mission by extending NATO to the borders of Russia and whether the concept of an American-European armed force deployable anywhere is a wise substitute for United Nations peacekeeping operations.
It is our contention that each of these questions needs to be examined discretely and then coordinated coherently into a credible policy. Stating such a lofty goal, however, does not connote much faith that it will materialize.
Congressional warnings against entanglement in a Balkan quagmire are well-founded, especially since there is no evidence the American people support such a risky involvement. But whatever decision Congress makes, it should do so only in the context of a U.S. policy on NATO and worldwide peace enforcement. Because this may be beyond the capabilities of this or any Congress, only strong, persuasive presidential leadership can show the way. So far, it has not emerged.