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Aggression Pays


When President Clinton's bluff was called, creating his firstforeign-policy crisis, it was not by superpower rivals, Republican chieftains or Asian financiers. It was by a bunch of second-rate local politicians defying their own leadership.

The "Bosnian Serb Parliament" is what Americans would call a rump or caucus, from what had been the equivalent of a state legislature. It consists of the Serb representatives who bolted Bosnia's parliament, which declared independence from Yugoslavia.

They were begged by their leader, Radovan Karadzic, to accept the Vance-Owen plan that he, under duress, had signed at Athens.

He might have winked. But there was no doubting the pleas to ratify the plan that came from Dobrica Cosic, president of Yugoslavia and literary inventor of Serb neo-nationalism, and from Slobodan Milosevic, president and boss of Serbia -- who now says he is cutting supplies to the errant Bosnian Serbs. There was no mistaking the urgency in the recommendations from a friend of the Serbs, Prime Minister Konstantin Mitsotakis of Greece, and from the friendly Russian government.

President Clinton had told them to ratify, or else. Or else what?

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was getting nowhere in trying to line up European support for military action against the Bosnian Serbs. Congressmen were vocally skeptical. The American people were unenthusiastic.

So the leader of the free world had his bluff called by the Balkan equivalent of Arkansas fringe legislators. And there was not much he could do about it but sputter outrage and try harder to line up European support for something.

The choice is to step into a quagmire that many people think would be worse than Vietnam, or to acquiesce in ethnic cleansing that many people think is genocide. Meanwhile, Mr. Milosevic's and Dr. Karadzic's methods are working.

They are well on their way to uniting all Serbs in one state by employing the dregs and crooks of Serbian society to murder Muslim men, rape women, blow up mosques, raze houses, destroy hospitals, block humanitarian convoys, bombard towns and villages. Why stop a successful strategy?

This crisis in confidence in the West comes just after the last international effort at imposing civil society, in Somalia, succeeded to the point where the U.S. could turn over responsibility to the U.N. But also just as the next one, in Cambodia, runs into opposition. The Khmer Rouge, expecting to lose the election later this month, is trying to prevent it and attacking U.N. peace-keepers. In all likelihood, a regime will be legitimized in Cambodia by this election and will then be helped by the U.S. and U.N. and Asian powers to fight the Khmer Rouge.

But Europe appears unwilling to contemplate anything similar in the former Yugoslavia.

The key to American freedom of action with respect to Bosnia is Russia. The guide to Clinton diplomacy is to clear it with Yeltsin. That is because Russia is the natural protec tor of Serbia, based on history and religion, but also a supplicant American aid. The leading American interest in Yugoslavia is to avoid confrontation with Russia.

President Clinton's strong support for Boris Yeltsin at the time of the Russian political crisis, much criticized at the time, in hindsight seems to have been brilliant. He was right, and Mr. Yeltin is indebted to him.

Whatever freedom of action Mr. Clinton retains is thanks to Mr. Yeltsin and Sen. Robert Dole. The constraints come from Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, Sen. Sam Nunn and House Democrats.

The odds are that the Bosnian Serbs, by delaying "ratification" pending a referendum and more ethnic cleansing, will get everything they want. It is likely that President Clinton will fail in his efforts to organize action to stop it, and will not have domestic support to go it alone.

And then Serb nationalists would hardly be able to restrain themselves from using such successful methods to cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian majority next.

In which case, Western appeasement of atrocity in Bosnia will have led only to the same set of decisions to make, at higher stakes, all over again.

If Albania and Hungary decided to emulate Serbia in uniting all their ethnic and linguistic kin who live contiguously, under their flag, they would plunge into war. With Serbia. Aggression is a terrible precedent.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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