HOW far will President Clinton bend his knee to the murderous thugs who lead Serbian aggression in Bosnia? How far can they push him without a response that preserves American honor?
Those questions have to be asked after the first disastrous application of the new Clinton policy toward the conflict in Bosnia. Consider what the president did to defer to Serbian sensibilities -- and what he got back.
Instead of more vigorous action to stop Serbian aggression, as he promised during the campaign, Mr. Clinton made a purely humanitarian move: to airdrop food and medicine to besieged civilians in Bosnia.
To avoid offending the aggressors, Mr. Clinton said relief supplies would go to all parties -- to the attacking Serbs as well as their victims.
Lest the U.S. cargo planes carrying out the operation provoke Serbian anti-aircraft gunners, the planes were kept over 10,000 feet. And they were not accompanied by fighters, as they were in the highly successful low-level airdrops to Kurds in northern Iraq.
To that deferential policy, the Serbian aggressors replied with these among other actions:
* When starving Muslims in the Cerska area came out of their villages to collect the few relief bundles that had fallen anywhere near them, Serbs shelled them.
* Serbian forces used the airdrops as a cover for a major offensive against the Cerska enclave. They overran it and, according to reports from the area, killed hundreds of civilians. A U.N. official called it a "massacre."
* Dr. Radovan Karadzic, self-styled president of the Serbs in Bosnia, issued an "open letter to the American people" from the United Nations in New York. In it he denounced the airdrops, saying that land relief routes were "perfectly adequate" though his forces have continually blocked them. He said:
"The tragic and deplorable terrorist incident at the World Trade Center is fresh testimony to the extraordinary volatility and immediate dangers of direct foreign involvement."
There cannot have been many threats as brazen as Dr. Karadzic's. He as good as warned the United States to stop even humanitarian help to his victims or face Serbian terrorist attacks in this country. (Thursday he "retracted" the threat, blaming a poor translation of his letter. That was as honest as most of his statements.)
Dr. Karadzic was at the U.N. for negotiations on the Vance-Owen plan for a settlement in Bosnia. But his statement, and the depravities carried out at his orders, showed how the supposed peace process has been used by the aggressors.
The Cerska area overrun by Serbian forces is assigned by the Vance-Owen plan to a canton with a Muslim majority. Indeed, it is a crucial part of the plan, designed by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance to prevent Bosnian Serbs from linking up to Serbia itself, ++ to the east, in a Greater Serbia.
But while the negotiations have gone on, the Serbs have eaten away at the territory, carrying out "ethnic cleansing" to remove Muslims by terror and murder. Can anyone believe they will quietly leave the Cerska area if and when the peace plan is accepted?
The United Nations looked pathetic in last week's tragic events. The Security Council condemned the Serbs, but they know the strong words will only be words.
But Mr. Clinton's honor is really at stake. The Serbs took him for a weakling. Seeing the deferential terms of his airdrop policy, they read it as conveying anything but resolution. They treated it -- treated Mr. Clinton and the United States -- with contempt.
The truth is that Dr. Karadzic and his colleagues understand only one thing: force. If the aim is to stop the Bosnian tragedy, the United States should be dropping bombs on his forces and his headquarters instead of appeasing him. If that is not the aim, it would be more honest to admit our impotence.
It is a question of political will. I have not been an admirer of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, but I know beyond any doubt that Radovan Karadzic would not have got away with his lies and aggression if they were in office. Instead we have had John Major, who makes Neville Chamberlain look like a man of steel, and the immobile George Bush.
And President Clinton? Where will he be counted when the reckoning of Bosnia is made?
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.