IN ONE bloody moment the hypocritical facade of President Clinton's empty policy on Bosnia crumbled.
The mortar shell that killed 68 people as they shopped in Sarajevo's market Saturday brought an end to the pretense that America had a meaningful policy.
Mr. Clinton inherited a Bosnian horror from European appeasers and President Bush. After a weak show of wanting to act he essentially withdrew from the problem, hoping Americans would forget it.
From the lowest echelon of the State Department to near the highest, no one believed in the non-policy. How far the rot of official cynicism had gone was shown in a report given at the National War College last month by Richard Johnson, a department officer who formerly headed its Yugoslav desk. He titled the paper "The Pin-Stripe Approach to Genocide."
"Senior policy-makers have failed to level with the American people on the nature of the moral and security" challenges we face in the Balkans, Mr. Johnson said. He said officials had deliberately played down evidence that Serbian "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in Bosnia amounted in law to genocide.
At a lunch last year, Mr. Johnson wrote, Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff said that he saw the moral issue in Bosnia but that a failed U.S. intervention "would destroy the American presidency."
Timothy Wirth, the department's counselor, said he agreed that the moral stakes were high but there were "even higher moral stakes at play: 'The survival of the fragile liberal coalition represented by this presidency.' "
In short, officials knew what was right but did not have the courage to do it. Or more precisely, Mr. Clinton did not. He gave the orders.
The political calculation in Washington, as in London and Paris, was that the Bosnian victims of aggression would eventually accept the division of their country, with most of it going to the Serbs and Croats. But the victims refused to go along. The mostly Muslim army of Bosnia fought on against the odds, and grew stronger.
France asked the Clinton administration to join in pressing the Bosnian government to give up and sign its dismemberment warrant. That was one thing the administration would not do.
The administration air-dropped food to the besieged Bosnian enclaves, but it did nothing to stop the aggression and genocide. The president's men said the situation was too complicated to intervene. In fact, it has become simpler. The necessary steps are plain.
1. The growing strength of the Bosnian army means that no ground troops are needed from outside. What is needed is what Mr. Clinton proposed and then abandoned: NATO air strikes against the aggressors and an end to the arms embargo on Bosnia.
2. The slaughter in the Sarajevo market underlines what should be the first air targets: the Serbian gun positions in the hills around Sarajevo and other Bosnian enclaves.
3. Planes should also be used to interdict the main-force Serbian and Croatian army units now moving into Bosnia. That means taking out the Drina River bridges that link Serbia and Bosnia, and attacking the Croatian entry routes.
4. The United States has repeatedly warned President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia to keep his hands off Bosnia. It is time now to make Croatia pay a price, economic and political, for ignoring that warning.
The United Nations is seemingly prevented from acting effectively by its own bureaucracy and Russia's veto in the Security Council. Others must move.
NATO has the force. Lawyers have shown persuasively that the U.N. arms embargo is legally nonexistent. All that is required is leadership. That can come from only one man: Mr. Clinton. If he leads, Europe will follow -- and so, I am convinced, will the American people.
On CNN last week Mr. Clinton's national security assistant, Anthony Lake, boasted that "Serb violence around Sarajevo has declined" since the NATO summit last month made another empty bombing threat.
Tell that to the parents of the six little girls killed by Serbian shells as they played in Sarajevo on Jan. 22. Or to the families of the 10 people killed by Serbian shells Feb. 4, or of the 68 last Saturday. They want action, not pretense. So should we.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.