Will he act now?


ON Aug. 2, 1990, the morning after Iraq occupied Kuwait, President Bush told reporters: "We're not discussing intervention. I'm not contemplating such action."

Then he flew to Aspen, Colo. There he met Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister. They talked for hours. That afternoon, at a joint press conference, Bush took a much tougher line. He condemned "naked aggression" and said he was considering "the next steps needed to end the invasion." Mrs. Thatcher had stiffened his backbone.

Can she do it again? That is the question after Mrs. Thatcher's call last week for military action to end the Serbian onslaught on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mrs. Thatcher recited the horrors being visited on Bosnian civilians by Serbs. She said the West should serve an ultimatum that Serbia end its support of the aggression and recognize Bosnia's independence and territorial integrity. If not, she said, Western planes should hit Serbian gunners who are shelling Bosnian cities and should bomb military supply facilities, including targets inside Serbia.

One purpose of her statement -- probably the purpose -- must have been to wake up George Bush. For his unwillingness to act has been the key factor in convincing Serbian leaders over many months that they could continue to get away with the policies that have killed thousands of Bosnians and driven millions from their homes.

Will the president be moved? Mrs. Thatcher is no longer prime minister. But she may still have an important psychological hold on Mr. Bush. More than anyone else she seems to touch in him the fear of being regarded as a wimp.

And Mrs. Thatcher is not alone. She has spoken out at a time when Mr. Bush is under growing pressure to change his policy, from domestic political forces and from the ever more flagrant cruelty of events in what was Yugoslavia.

Most Americans have been relatively indifferent to the Yugoslav conflict over the last year, and reluctant to see this country get militarily involved. But the accelerating horrors -- the pictures of orphans murdered, of harmless people made refugees by "ethnic cleansing" -- have begun to arouse Americans' moral outrage.

Two weeks ago the Bush campaign thought it would be a good political trick to attack Bill Clinton as "reckless" when he called for United Nations action to allow bombing of forces that attack relief efforts in Bosnia. It turned out that Mr. Clinton had done no more than restate the administration's own cautious policy.

Last week the Democratic candidate was more forceful. "We cannot afford to ignore what appears to be a deliberate and systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin," he said in a speech.

That view is being heard increasingly, across the political spectrum. Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, asked: "Why tTC didn't we respond to this aggression 12 months ago?"

Senator Dole and others in a bipartisan group called for the use of "all necessary means" to gain access to detention camps where Serbs have reportedly been mistreating and even executing Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, said the group favored limited air strikes to put pressure on Belgrade.

The administration's fumbling on Yugoslavia was embarrassingly exemplified last week by State Department officials' inconsistent statements about Serbian detention camps. Finally Deputy Secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger called for a war crimes investigation of what he said were "profoundly disturbing" reports of "death camps."

No one familiar with the Balkans can believe that military intervention in this conflict will be easy. But the cost of inaction -- the moral and political cost -- is growing.

No one is likely to concentrate George Bush's mind more wonderfully than Margaret Thatcher. He himself said last year that she had firmed him up during the gulf crisis, telling him at one point: "Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly."

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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