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President Clinton wants Americans to believe that we have long been committed to using U.S. ground troops to extract U.N. peacekeepers from Bosnia. That is false.

"We agreed for planning purposes," he told Univision last week, "that in the event the United Nations mission in Bosnia would be terminated and the soldiers had to get out, and they were in trouble so that they needed protection in getting out, that we would participate in doing that."That is a commitment that the United States has had for some time now," Clinton added. "We said that back before I became president and when President Bush was in office, and the Europeans said that they wanted to take the lead in Bosnia; and we encouraged them to do that but, if they got in trouble and had to get out, we would help them get out."

That was his explanation for announcing his decision to send up to 25,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia if asked to cover the withdrawal of the 23,000 lightly armed peacekeeper-hostages.

Initial congressional and editorial reaction to Clinton's carrying out Bush's commitment was predictable: we have to keep our promise, but our involvement had better be limited to the withdrawal, and under an American commander, with everybody home quick, etc.

Nobody stopped to ask: Exactly who promised what to whom, and why is this the first we've heard of it?

Over the weekend, I called Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state at the end of the Bush administration, to ask if he had made a secret commitment to send our troops to rescue allied troops.

"I don't want to call the president a liar," he replied, "but I don't remember any such commitment. Ask Brent."

I called Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser. "When they put their forces in," he recalled, "we said - I think to John Major - that if it became necessary, we would protect them with our air power. We never talked about sending in American ground forces."

No high-level, publicly accountable Clinton administration official wanted to refute the president's misleading implication that in sending ground troops he was carrying out his predecessor's promise.

The administration person assigned to respond on background did some checking and replied: "Our commitment was confined to air power. There were discussions during the Bush administration about the use of ground troops but no commitments. We have now extended this to include ground forces. It is not a continuation but an extension of the earlier commitment."

That's a whole new kettle of fish. With no debate, without Congressional examination and without even a straight explanation, Clinton has committed to our allies - who have treated all our Bosnian suggestions with contempt - up to 25,000 U.S. combat troops to cover their retreat. How's that for untrammeled presidential power?

Before Congress OKs the "extension," we should get equivalent commitments from Britain, France and Germany.

A superpower does not put its soldiers and pilots at risk solely to cover an ignominious retreat. The U.S. should seize this moment to brush aside the United Nations and organize a NATO victory for collective security.