Paris. -- There once was an interest to be served by Western intervention in Yugoslavia: a crucial interest -- but it was abandoned. That abandonment explains the rambling, acrimonious and indecisive debate about Bosnia going on today among the Western allies.
The West's interest was to defend international law and a certain standard of international behavior in postwar Europe: the principle that ethnic and territorial grievances must be settled by negotiation, not aggressive war and ethnic purge.
The principle actually validated by the actions, or non-action, of the European governments and the United States during the past year has been the opposite one: that invasion, purge and the whipping-up of nationalist frenzy work marvelously and safely to aggrandize an aggrieved people and can handsomely promote the fortunes of the rulers who adopt such techniques.
No one today is prepared to intervene in Yugoslavia to reverse that result: certainly not the Clinton Administration, despite its past belligerence and the bad conscience of some of its officials. Intervention was a serious option a year ago, when even to have armed the Bosnians might have produced a military stalemate, or even a settlement with some kind of rough justice attached to it, and when such a policy would have demonstrated a Western willingness to support civilized standards of international conduct. Today it is too late.
The Clinton government is aware of the issues of principle, but it is politically dominated by its desire to avoid any risk of American casualties. In this it faithfully reflects the contradictions of American popular feeling, to the extent that this is revealed by the opinion polls. The administration lacks the courage to tell the public that the United States cannot claim leadership in world affairs and at the same time have a risk-free military policy.
The European governments are caught in essentially the same contradiction in public opinion but have a more complicated problem because they already have troops on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and have already taken casualties in the war. They do not want the United States to do anything that might further endanger those troops. Their unarticulated wish is that the Bosnian government would stop resisting the Serbs, so as to get refugees, casualties and ruins off European television screens.
The result of all this has been that violence and duplicity have successfully given Serbia a Greater Serbia, and Croatia a Greater Croatia, at Bosnia-Herzegovina's expense and at small cost to the aggressors. The European Community and the United Nations have kept the victims of aggression from arming themselves and have done much useful work for the Serbs by expediting the removal of refugees from the territories the Serbs have seized.
In the Vance-Owen plan, the United Nations has even proposed to ratify and enforce the results of Serbian and Croatian aggression. A deployment of 50,000 to 70,000 troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been suggested.
This is a terrible idea. If it were attempted, despite the Vance-Owen plan's rejection by the Bosnian Serbs, it would commit the United Nations to an ethnic partition of that country on terms that victors and victims alike loath and resist.
Yet it continues to have the support of the European powers. Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, says that he still expects much of the "willingness and determination" of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to help to conclude "the peace process." (George Orwell said of "Newspeak," the political language he invented for 1984, that its defining characteristic was that "a great many words meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.")
Mr. Hurd added that, unlike certain American officials, he has never called Mr. Milosevic -- the man chiefly responsible for launching Serbia onto its course of frenzied nationalist expansion -- a war criminal. "It is always a little excessive to use that kind of language in such circumstances," Mr. Hurd said.
The Western powers clearly believe that Serbia has won its war. They are waiting for the Bosnians to stop struggling.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.