A positive reaction in Congress to the air action over Bosnia masks a simmering debate about who calls the shots when U.S. forces fight for the United Nations.
House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said the downing of Serb jets by two U.S. fighters flying under NATO auspices had strong congressional support. And Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the shootdown "is indicative of the strong chain of command that we have established" through NATO.
But how that chain of command works if the U.S. involvement goes beyond a few warplanes is a question that has dogged the Clinton administration for the past year. It is taking on new urgency because up to half of any international ground force that would enforce a peace treaty in Bosnia could be made up of U.S. troops, according to the administration.
Lawmakers are demanding to know who will control U.S. forces in Bosnia, should foreign leaders order them into battle, and who is to be held responsible if things go wrong.
Retired Army Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, says the debate centers on two competing concepts: unity of command vs. political accountability. "If something goes wrong, the American people are not going to blame the U.N. or the allied commander," Summers said. "They're going to blame the man they elected to be the commander-in-chief."
Last summer, Clinton came close to approving a policy favoring "rapid expansion" of peacekeeping efforts. Then came the Somalia raid in October that claimed the lives of 18 Americans.
Since then, enthusiasm for participation in U.N. peacekeeping has waned. In January, the administration scrapped the idea of having an assistant defense secretary for peacekeeping. Recently, administration officials briefed lawmakers on a draft policy that says peacekeeping is "not a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy" and that envisions participation only on a "case-by-case basis."
Still, feelings remain strong against any U.S. peacekeeping role.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., stated his view bluntly when he urged the Senate to impose the March 31 withdrawal deadline in Somalia: "Nobody in America elected the U.N. secretary-general."
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole said that President Bush "worked with the U.N. and NATO, but we were sort of first among equals." Now, he complained, "We're just one of the equals."
The opposite side of the coin is the idea that other nations should share the world peacekeeping burden with the United States.
"The American people support multilateralism," said Rep. Ronald Dellums, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that in some circles, "multilateral" has become a bad word. "Let's use something else. Let's call it "burden-sharing.' "
A working group headed by two Republicans and two Democrats and a dozen foreign policy experts split on the issue in a recent report. Some reluctantly supported the idea of divided leadership under overall U.N. command. Others argued that in any major military action, the United States should "insist on retaining command."
Past examples of multinational military control include World War I, when U.S. forces commanded by Gen. John Pershing coordinated their movements with the British and French. Allied forces in World War II fought under joint command with British and American generals.
Clinton took office considering something markedly different: creating a separate U.S. force that would operate under U.N. command. Now, the administration is advancing a policy opposed to "any standing U.N. army."