WHERE HAVE we seen this scene before? The president and high-ranking officials of the administration tell members of Congress they want to send a relatively small number of U.S. troops to a foreign land to help end a bloody war. Not to worry, though. While they won't be home by this Christmas, they will almost certainly be home by next Christmas. Relax, Bob Hope, your services won't be needed.
If Vietnam was quicksand that slowly sucked America in, Bosnia could easily be a black hole.
U.S. lives at stake
For those with good memories, the arguments for and against involvement in Bosnia would be amusing and great material for debates if American lives were not at stake. Many Democrats who argued that U.S. lives should not be sacrificed in foreign adventures without specific authorization from Congress now either won't publicly disagree with a Democratic president, or do so with some caution. But Republicans have a problem, too. Many of them who argued in favor of the foreign policies of Richard Nixon (Vietnam), Ronald Reagan (Central America) and George Bush (the Persian Gulf) now find themselves on the side some of their Democratic colleagues were on in those other conflicts.
Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for Latin America during the height of the fight with Congress over whether to oppose communists in Nicaragua and El Salvador, tells me he is ''torn'' over President Clinton's decision to send 20,000 American troops as part of a NATO force.
Mr. Abrams worries that, unlike George Bush and Ronald Reagan who were able to build at least some support for their foreign policies, ''President Clinton has no support in the U.S. population [for Bosnia].'' He is especially concerned that ''the lines of command and responsibility are not clear in Bosnia'' and warns that U.S. forces must be under U.S. and NATO commanders and not take orders or have policy made by the United Nations.
@4 Beyond the lines of command are other questions.
Is peace near?
First, why are we prepared to send troops when there is no official peace agreement? The cease-fire is shaky at best and, in fact, fighting has not ceased in some areas. The general ''guidelines'' for a peace settlement are so non-specific that the first step is the easiest. The details will be difficult and the odds favor failure. So the debate over a settlement and the face-off with Congress is premature.
Of even larger concern should be the entry of Russian troops, who will be on the side of the Serbs and, by their choice, not under NATO command. This could place U.S. troops in direct confrontation with Russian troops, which immensely raises the stakes in this worrisome situation.
If administration officials bring this off, they will deserve much credit. But the odds of it happening are between poor and impossible because this adventure is more one of peace enforcement than of peacekeeping.
5) Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.