THE question is acute, because the declared policy makes little sense, yet the actions that are being taken could lead to a wider war. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has seen fit to remind everyone that World War I broke out in the city of Sarajevo. Russian support for Serbia has, in the words of Mark Heinrich, of Reuters, "united a fractious Russia Parliament as possibly no other issue could, making curious bedmates of nationalists, communists, moderates and radicals."
What we know for certain is that NATO threatened air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo unless, within 10 days, the Serbs withdrew their heavy weaponry to a distance of 12 miles from the center of the city. What we do not know is what policy this step is a part of.
Last Wednesday, the day of the NATO decision, President Clinton, in his most comprehensive statement on the crisis in several weeks, offered several possibilities. The first was "helping to prevent a broader conflict in Europe" -- an aim that may scarcely be served by NATO air strikes, which would in themselves be a broadening of the conflict. The second was "showing that NATO . . . remains a credible force."
But defending the "credibility" of one's power -- an aim that, more than any other, kept the Vietnam War going for almost a decade -- is, taken by itself, tautological. It merely states that great powers pay a high cost in prestige for failing to succeed in whatever they may have set out to do.
Third was "stemming the destabilizing flows of refugees." Fourth and last was preventing "the strangulation of Sarajevo and the continuing slaughter of innocents in Bosnia." Bombing might well protect Sarajevo for a while, but it also might precipitate a greater slaughter of innocents "in Bosnia," most of which would be out of bounds for the NATO bombers but not for the pitiless Serbian forces.
The horns of the dilemma are by now well-known. On the one hand, Serbian aggression cannot be stopped, most military experts agree, without the use of hundreds of thousands of ground troops; yet there is simply no support in the United States or in Europe for ground war on this scale. On the other hand, inaction may consign the Bosnians to extinction -- a result that public opinion is not yet prepared to accept.
In these circumstances, politicians naturally hope to find some middle position. Mr. Clinton suggested that one might exist. He would see to it that our "contribution" was "proportional to our interests." Unfortunately, there is little reason to think that such a contribution -- one restricted to limited air strikes -- would dissuade the Serbs from their course, especially when they have been told in advance that NATO lacks the stomach for militarily effective steps.
However, another interpretation for the new NATO moves is possible. It has been suggested that the threat to bomb is aimed at producing an effect not on the Serbs at all but on the Bosnians. There are reports that France, which has long urged Bosnia to accept a settlement in which it surrenders most of the territory seized by Serbs, has finally persuaded the United States to join in the effort. The United States has in fact sent two negotiators to Europe to propose new, undefined political solutions. If these speculations are correct, then NATO will in effect tell the Bosnian negotiators that, by threatening to bomb, it has gone the last mile, and now the Bosnians must accept the loss of most of their country. This surrender to the results of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" would be masked by the momentary appearance of toughness created by the bombing threat.
There is in fact a precedent for such a policy. In late 1972, when President Nixon was negotiating the final details of the peace agreement with North Vietnam, he launched a savage bombing campaign against the North -- the so-called Christmas bombing. In public, he stated that its purpose was to break alleged North Vietnamese resistance. The diplomatic history of the time has revealed, however, that the real target of the bombing was South Vietnam's leadership, which knew very well that the agreement was their country's death warrant, and were balking at signing.
The NATO powers will be lucky indeed if such a policy works in former Yugoslavia. It would require, first, that the Serbs in fact withdraw in the face of the threat and, second, that the Bosnians, whose forces have been growing stronger, abandon hope and sign. If either of these things fails to happen, NATO will find itself facing in a more extreme form than ever the dilemma it now seeks to escape -- whether to plunge deeper into a widening war or to reverse course, and leave Bosnia to its doom.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.