Bleak Options on Bosnia


Inexorably, the options President Clinton wants to keep on the table for dealing with Bosnia are being more narrowly defined. His personal choice of rearming the badly outgunned Muslims in their battle against the Serbs and of threatening U.S. air strikes as a standby measure if the rearming does not work is still opposed by the British, the French and, importantly, the Russians.

So what to do in dealing with what the president rightly defines as one of the thorniest foreign policy problems in recent years? More and more, Mr. Clinton is being pushed in a direction he has long resisted. More and more, he is being forced to contemplate the injection of U.S. ground troops.

At this juncture, the president has signaled a willingness to place U.S. forces (presumably in blue helmets) on the Macedonian-Serbian border to keep the Balkan conflict from spreading. At the same time, he has refused the use of American soldiers to police the effectiveness of Belgrade's suspect embargo along the Bosnian-Serbian border -- a step the Security Council is now considering.

The key question, however, is whether the president would send U.S. forces into Bosnia itself, there to enforce the Vance-Owen jigsaw map that would divide the country into Muslim, Croatian and Serbian enclaves. He has indicated, for the first time, that he might consider such a step if all parties agree to the plan. But if, as expected, the Bosnian Serb population votes no in a #i referendum this weekend rather than give up conquered territory, some unpalatable choices would emerge.

Some 75,000 troops, one third of them Americans, could be sent into Bosnia as peace enforcers. Or the Clinton plan to arm the Muslims and possibly unleash air power might finally be accepted. Or the containment strategy for Macedonia could be invoked. Or more of the current same, including severe economic sanctions that have caused the Serbian government in Belgrade to demand that its Bosnian kinfolk accept the Vance-Owen plan.

It is all too true that Mr. Clinton has zigzagged, even as the world recoiled at Serbian mass murder tactics. But he is right in insisting that before he puts thousands of young Americans at risk and diverts billions of dollars from domestic needs, he should insist on a plan with a beginning, a middle and an end. The trouble both with the Clinton formula of rearming and standby air strikes and the European preference for separating the populations in Bosnia is that either is essentially just a first step. How long would on-site involvement go on? What response might it draw from Greater Serbia? Could it lead to a real political solution?

Because answers to such questions are so tentative and the risks of intervention so great, Mr. Clinton should keep on zigzagging, even in the face of criticism. Sanctions are exerting pressure on Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs might yet be pushed into acceptance of a peace plan. Then NATO could assume a new role as the world's preeminent keeper -- not enforcer -- of the peace.

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