The last time Congress stopped a U.S. military operation by cutting off its funding was June 30, 1973. The wars in Vietnam and Laos were over, but not the one in Cambodia. American bombers, in support of government forces, were attacking the Khmer Rouge (who had rejected the Paris peace accords). Congress, in its wisdom, cut off funds for all U.S. military operations in Indochina effective August 15, 1973.

Given that doleful history - the U.S. Congress, in effect, assisting the rise to power of the worst mass murderers of this half century - it is not surprising that Congress may be reluctant to use the same device again. And while this particular historical memory may not be the root of Congress' aversion to cutting off funding for President Clinton's 20,000-man Bosnia expedition, a more general reluctance to undermine a commander in chief in action is certainly staying Congress' hand.For all the moaning and groaning, there is absolutely no chance that this Congress will move to prevent Clinton's Bosnia adventure. The plain fact is that on Bosnia Congress does not have the stomach to say no, and it may not have the courage to say yes. It will nod and dodge, and the deployment will go ahead.

On Bosnia round 1, the home front, Clinton has won. How did he do it? The principal tactic was simple delay. Congress had its chance and did not take it.

In early November, the secretaries of state and defense appeared with the chairman of the joint chiefs before Congress to defend the prospective 20,000-troop deployment. Their performance was so fumbling and uninspiring - to some, indeed alarming - that there was strong sentiment, particularly in the House, to head off this deployment before it could take place.

Six days before the peace accords were initialed in Dayton, the House National Security Committee held hearings on Bosnia. In three hours of questioning, not a single member of either party expressed anything but the gravest reservations about deployment. Indeed the most pressing question asked of the two invited witnesses (Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and me) was whether Congress should vote immediately to cut off the funds or wait and see what came out of Dayton.

For weeks the administration had argued for congressional delay on the grounds that the details were not known - how could they vote on a still hypothetical deal? and voting to oppose the deployment would jeopardize the ongoing negotiations in Dayton.

In fact, influencing the Dayton talks was precisely the reason Congress should have denied funds to the 20,000-man peacekeeping force: It would have instantly moved the talks in the direction of a peace kept by the parties themselves, assisted perhaps by neutral outsiders (which the U.S. is decidedly not) and not by Americans.

As for the first argument, it was boldly bogus and everyone knew it. The outlines of what was eventually agreed at Dayton were known far in advance. Delay was simply a device to get Congress not to vote against the deployment while it still had the chance. It was taking a page out of George Bush's book, who made sure the vote on the gulf war was delayed until the last moment. The more the fait is accompli, the harder it is for Congress to say no.

Once Dayton was concluded, it was too late. The argument instantly shifted. It was no longer about the wisdom of sending 20,000 Americans to police a Balkan truce. It was about the wisdom of undercutting American credibility, presidential prerogative, solemn commitments, etc., etc. - all the chips a president can pile on the table and dare Congress to sweep away.

Indeed, chip-piling was the whole point of Clinton's speech Monday night. What was important was not what he said but the fact that he said it on national television. All the anticipatory hype about how this was the make-or-break speech by which the president would have to convince the American people was sheer nonsense. The speech moved public opinion on Bosnia hardly an inch. And yet it effectively ended the political debate in Washington.

The president could have recited the Declaration of Independence on Monday night and it wouldn't have mattered. The only relevant argument was the unstated one, the one implicit in the very giving of the speech: I've given our word and staked our prestige on this. After that, there is no going back.

Clinton has succeeded in taking an issue of little intrinsic national interest and turning it, by commitments made on his own, into an issue of significant national interest. He has done so by stacking all the chips on the table, on a spot marked Bosnia. It is the kind of bet inflation only presidents can effect. When they do, however, they had better make sure they win.