If the United States bombs Bosnian Serb forces outside Sarajevo, what then? If the Serbs retaliate against the peacekeeping troops of France, Britain, Canada and Spain, do we then extend the air war throughout the country wherever United Nations contingents are located? Do we hit Tuzla to open the airport and Srebrenica to relieve Canadian forces who have not wanted such help?
And after that, what of demands that the U.N. peacekeeping force be strengthened massively? Would G.I.s be included? Are we prepared for a long-haul engagement? Is it really in American interests to split with Yeltsin's Russia on this issue?
Our questions could go on, but listen to those posed by new Defense Secretary William Perry: "If air strikes are Act One of a new melodrama, what is Act Two? What is Act Three? What is the conclusion? What will the political effect be?"
Mr. Perry is as horrified as anyone over the Bosnian war's worst atrocity -- the shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace which left 68 civilians dead. And he is sounding the drumbeat, up to a point, by threatening U.S. air strikes to prevent the strangulation of the Bosnian capital. But he shares the misgivings of many allied high commands about entanglement in the Balkans. Military leaders who order young men into battle want an exit as well as an entry plan. They fear military missions in pursuit of ill-considered political objectives.
If American policy is to shift in response to the Sarajevan atrocity, it should be on the diplomatic rather than the military front. Robert M. Hayden, a Yugoslavia expert at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in The Sun's Perspective section that the U.S. has prolonged the war by encouraging Bosnian Muslims to turn down four partition plans, each one less advantageous than its predecessor, and pushing for the lifting of the arms embargo. Partition will be accomplished, Mr. Hayden predicted, "in the worst possible way."
That "worst possible way" was graphically etched in the gruesome pictures flashed around the world after the Sarajevo bombing Saturday. They could have the same effect as the pictures of starving Somali scarecrows that led to the ill-starred U.S. involvement in that country.
President Clinton's political instincts have tilted to the side of caution until now. But it will take courage to resist bomb-now pressure from legislators, who, as the president noted, have no constituents on the ground in Bosnia, and from France which, in a switch from its earlier position, now favors concerted NATO military action.
Britain and Canada disagree. So does this newspaper. While warnings of air strikes may deter the Serbs, pressure should now be put on all three sides to reach a peace agreement. Muslim forces, bolstered by weapons supplies and volunteers from some Islamic nations, have been gaining ground lately. Psychologically and militarily -- and at last with U.S. prodding -- they may be in a position to achieve an acceptable partition.