WASHINGTON -- Quagmire -- the word that embodied American involvement in Vietnam a quarter century ago now hangs over the Clinton administration's plan to send 20,000 U.S. peacekeepers to Bosnia.
The vision of Americans being drawn into a crisis in Central Europe that is easier to get into than out of is at the heart of congressional and public misgivings over the mission.
It is not a new concern. That legacy of Vietnam was revived in 1983 in Lebanon when 241 American troops, mostly Marines, died in a terrorist attack, and was recalled again in 1993 in Somalia when a humanitarian mission turned into a misguided political intervention and cost the lives of 30 Americans, 18 of them Army Rangers killed in a single firefight.
It is one of the recurring themes to emerge over the past two days of congressional hearings that have laid bare the doubts, dilemmas and dangers that have engulfed the mission.
Why, critics also ask, is Bosnia suddenly a vital U.S. interest that requires the presence of an American force after peace is declared?
How can the United States propose to equip and train the Bosnian government -- if the Serbs don't relinquish their heavy weapons -- without losing its neutrality, which is already suspect Serbian eyes after its leadership of NATO airstrikes against Serbian targets?
For Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican and presidential hopeful, the parallel is U.S. involvement in Lebanon and the deadly terrorist attack on the Marine barracks.
The United States undermined its neutrality there by training and arming the Lebanese army, just as it now proposes to train and equip the Bosnian army, Mr. Lugar said.
"The delicacy of how you wade into peacekeeping while at the same time disarming one set of forces and beefing up another without becoming an adversary is very difficult to contemplate," he said.
During the hearings, Republican and Democratic members of Congress worried openly that a peace agreement in Bosnia would not necessarily mean peace; that U.S. troops would become targets of renegade paramilitaries; that the administration was accepting more than its share of the burden of a European problem; and that an arbitrary time limit of a year for the mission would not guarantee an orderly exit.
"It's a quicksand situation," said Sen. John W. Warner, who was Navy secretary from 1972 to 1974. He told the administration's top Bosnia policy-makers: "I think there is the deepest and the gravest concern about this proposed military operation of any I've experienced with my constituents since the close of the Vietnam War."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, cited "haunting similarities to things we have been through in recent years," and said: "I think our great fear is the quagmire fear of 'Are we getting lured in?' "
A recent Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today found that 52 percent of those questioned supported deployment of U.S. peacekeepers to Bosnia, while 43 percent opposed it.
If there is a real peace agreement, asked Sen. Daniel R. Coats, why will it take 60,000 peacekeepers -- 20,000 of them Americans -- to implement it?
JTC "That's where I have a problem," the Indiana Republican said. "We won't go there unless there is a real peace, but we're going to go there to ensure that there is a real peace. The two seem contradictory to me."
Such misgivings have presented the administration with the challenge of making a convincing case on Capitol Hill and across the nation for risking American lives in a place of ancient hatreds.
"The burden of proof has not been satisfied," Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the National Security Committee, said yesterday. "The more discussion there on the administration proposal, the longer the list of troubling questions grows. And detailed answers, at least to date, are scarce."
The administration case rests on the assertion that the vital interests of the United States are at stake in ensuring peace in the historically volatile Balkans. Without it, the security and stability of Europe -- and by extension the United States -- will be in jeopardy.
The administration also argues that U.S. failure to join allied nations in the NATO peace-implementation force would be an abdication of U.S. leadership, threatening the existence of the world's strongest military alliance.