Clinton fiddles while Bosnia burns


THE tragedy in Bosnia is terrible now, the worst human disaster in Europe since the crimes of the Nazis. It is going to get a lot worse soon.

The last Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia cannot hold out against Serbian attacks more than another two or three weeks, according to U.N. officials there. If and when the Serbs overrun them, 60,000 desperate civilians will try to find some way out through the mountains to join the already more than one million refugees.

And then there will be Sarajevo, the besieged capital. Serbian gunners have intensified their shelling of the city in recent days; last Sunday U.N. observers counted 2,398 shells. The Serbs may now be in a position to capture the suburb of Stup, from which they could rake much of the city with tank and artillery fire.

Military experts believe the Serbs' intention is not to make a ground attack on Sarajevo but to keep shelling the city until its will collapses and the people flee. That will be around 350,000 more refugees, if that many are still alive at the end.

The Serbian aggressors have become increasingly cynical in their cruelty, increasingly contemptuous of all those trying to stop the fighting. Last week Serbian military leaders gave their solemn assurance that they would maintain a cease-fire to let United Nations helicopters take sick and wounded civilians out of the town of Srebrenica. As the helicopters prepared to take off, the Serbs shelled them.

The president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, has also discarded the pretense that his army -- the old Yugoslav army -- has nothing to do with the attacks by Bosnian Serb militias. Yugoslav army units have blocked U.N. relief convoys, openly ferried troops into Bosnia and fired into Muslim areas from across the border. Yugoslav planes have bombed Muslim villages.

What answer does the world have to such brutality, cynicism and contempt for international order? None.

And the president of the United States? He does nothing except order food dropped to the victims so they can stay alive a little longer until the aggressors overrun them. He does not even say anything about the intensifying Serbian onslaught.

President Clinton's weakness no doubt reflects the views of the joint chiefs of staff. Gen. Colin Powell and his colleagues all along have resisted any U.S. military involvement in the Yugoslav conflict as too risky. But even in terms of their current doctrine of doing nothing without overwhelming superiority, they have exaggerated the risk.

Serbian soldiers are not the brave Partisans of World War II; they are cowards who lob shells into cities from protected positions. The difficulty of the terrain matters much less with the development of high-tech weapons. Experts on the ground believe that a short, sharp Western intervention long ago would have stopped the Serbs -- scared them into stopping.

Now Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, extending the doctrine of timidity, has said that the United States should not send troops to enforce any political agreement unless the parties plainly mean to abide by it. That statement removes whatever chance remained that the peace plan proposed by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen would be taken seriously.

Serbian leaders have never taken it seriously anyway. As the negotiations go on, they gobble up territory that the Vance-Owen plan assigns to the Muslims. When they have seized all they want, perhaps they will graciously agree to a cease-fire.

Mr. Clinton has other reasons for doing nothing. Britain and France oppose any military action, because the Serbs might then attack their soldiers who are acting as escorts for U.N. relief efforts. Boris Yeltsin would be embarrassed because of historic Russian ties to Serbia.

There is some truth in those arguments. But they cannot obscure the reality: President Clinton failed to take the bold action that would have made a difference. And now he has all but washed his hands of the Bosnian tragedy.

In the long run, the nice arguments will not carry much weight against the horror of what will have happened in Bosnia. Bill Clinton will join George Bush as the American presidents who did not stand up against genocide.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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