Yet both the wording of his statement and the immediate congressional reaction to it suggest this will not be an easy option. Mr Clinton said he would send troops if necessary and only after consulting the Congress. He defined their possible task as providing assistance to Nato if the alliance "decides to meet a request from the United Nations" to help to conduct a withdrawal or reposition its troops.
Somewhere through this fog of conditionality and procedure there gleams a light of understanding. For too long the United States has run its policy towards south-east Europe with a division of purpose that sometimes looks like schizophrenia.
Its role in the southern Balkans has been almost wholly positive: supporting Macedonia, guiding Albania away from folly, sending clear signals over the Serbian province of Kosovo.
But its interference in the politics of Croatia has been questionable, its previous estrangement from Belgrade without shrewdness or clear purpose, and its support for the Muslim leadership of Bosnia so misleading to that optimistic government that it bordered on the callous.
Now Mr Clinton has been forced by the hostage crisis - how those words resound uneasily in American ears! - to take action. It is fair to assume that there has been some fairly blunt speaking in Nato councils during the past week or so. In the past Britain and France had to watch American envoys operating to what seemed like a different agenda.
It is reassuring to know that in the present moment of danger Mr Clinton's emissary to Belgrade, Robert Frasure, bears a message underwritten by all - recognise Bosnia, see sanctions removed, help to quench the flames of war and take a step back towards Europe.
Some statesmen claim that America and Europe remain fundamentally divided by their adherence to separate principles of foreign policy. Since Woodrow Wilson the United States has exported a universal vision of democracy and progress, believing that right could prevail against ancient evils. By contrast - in this view - Europe reverts in crisis to the old cynicism of the necessity to balance competing powers, holding that only a crude equilibrium can restrain an over-mighty state from aggression. It is, in a way, a conflict between modern mass idealism and the 19th-century grandee's way of doing business.
Perhaps in Bosnia we have witnessed the ultimate test of both these principles: fruitlessly at odds with each other in the effort to preserve a multiconfessional nation and simultaneously create a viable arrangement of states in the Balkans.
If the grim events of the past week have forced the two traditions to converge, then the grave difficulties that lie ahead will be more easily surmounted.Reuse content