WASHINGTON -- Strip away the euphemisms and the multinational trappings, and the implication of two days of air strikes in the eastern Bosnia town of Gorazde is clear: U.S. forces are in combat in the Balkans.
Now, Americans will see whether the Bosnia "hawks" in the United States were right that air power would curb the Serbs' aggression and push them toward peace, or whether the "doves" were right in fearing that air attacks would suck U.S. forces into an open-ended quagmire.
Either way, President Clinton is committed more deeply than ever, and will have a hard time backing off if things turn bad for American forces. "We've committed the prestige of the United States," said a senior administration official.
Officially, the air strikes are termed "close air support" to protect U.N. peacekeepers under threat from shelling of the Muslim enclave. The strikes were undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after a request from the commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, under a U.N. resolution and a NATO decision in June.
This international cast prompted Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland to praise the action yesterday, saying: "I would support further air strikes, if they are consistent with U.N. resolutions and if they are part of a multinational effort."
But the peacekeepers in Gorazde number about a dozen, and U.N. forces previously have come under threat without a strong response. Their plight appeared to be a convenient pretext for the United States finally to use its muscle against Serbian heavy-weapon targets.
Making action legal
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher indicated last week that the presence of U.N. peacekeepers in Gorazde would provide a legal basis for military action because the Security Council and NATO are committed to the peacekeepers' protection.
Mr. Christopher acknowledged yesterday that there was little distinction between protecting the U.N. forces and protecting Gorazde itself, which has been termed a "safe area" by the U.N. Security Council. And Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a television interview that the Gorazde air strikes "should be seen as a signal for the other safe havens."
Why, two years after the start of a war that brought a level of atrocity unseen in Europe since World War II, has the United States weighed in with bombs?
Strategically,the bombing is a lesson to the Serbs that after seizing 70 percent of Bosnia they have gained all the territory they can hope for in their campaign of "ethnic cleansing" and a Greater Serbia, and that now is the time to settle. U.S. officials have feared that if serious negotiations didn't get under way now, the alternative would be a brutal escalation by both sides that could drag the war into a third year. Gorazde is one of several Muslim pockets in largely Serbian-controlled eastern Bosnia that interrupt plans for a Greater Serbia linking the region to Serbia and Montenegro.
'Hawks' on top
The bombing reflects a sea change in the Clinton administration's attitude about using force in Bosnia, with advocates of action, including Mr. Christopher, Mrs. Albright and Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, coming out on top against Pentagon "doves."
Only by combining diplomacy and the credible threat of force, these officials believe, can the United States pressure the Bosnian Serbs to negotiate seriously. They also have concluded that Bosnia is a key test of the NATO alliance's purpose.
Within the administration, the turning point occurred in February, when NATO issued an ultimatum that, together with Russian intervention, persuaded the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.
When Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,appeared last week to be backsliding on the threat of force, administration "hawks" coalesced around the idea of protecting U.N. troops in Gorazde, and top Clinton advisers presented a unified front.
Two other factors contributed to the bombing. One is erosion of European opposition to force in Bosnia after repeated failures of European peace efforts. The other is a growing U.S. willingness to defy Russia, even if it weakens Moscow's reformers in their battle against nationalist hard-liners.
No ground troops yet
Although his country is now involved in the conflict and will bomb in response to specific provocations and with the legal &r; underpinning of U.N. resolutions, Mr. Clinton hasn't wavered in his refusal to insert American ground troops in advance of a solid peace agreement.
"This terrible conflict will not be settled on the battlefield, but will only be settled at the negotiating table," Mr. Christopher said. Mr. Clinton "has moved away from his aversion to using force to the point where he is willing to experiment," said an approving George Kenney, a Balkan specialist who quit the State Department in protest against the Bush administration's hands-off policy in Bosnia.
But now the Clinton administration confronts new challenges. One is to persuade Bosnia's Muslims not to exploit NATO's involvement with an unrealistic military push to reclaim much lost territory.
Mr. Christopher, briefing reporters at the State Department, said the Muslim-led government "in my judgment, was very anxious to proceed with negotiations looking toward a cease-fire and then the cessation of hostilities. I think that continues to be their attitude."
Others aren't so sure. Barry Pozen, an analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "The more fighting we do with the Serbs, the less chance of the Muslims' making any concessions because they are getting what they want."
Mr. Kenney believes that President Clinton will have to "tell the Bosnians the bad news": that they will have to live with what they've already managed to keep.
Another challenge is persuading Russia that it has more to gain from cooperating with the United States and pressuring the Serbs to make peace than it does in encouraging them to resist and keep shelling.
Although President Boris N. Yeltsin reacted angrily to the fact that he had not been consulted before Sunday's attack, Mr. Christopher indicated a softer response had come in a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
"In essence,he agreed with me that we should both do all we can to ensure that the parties return to the negotiating table," he said.
A final, crucial challenge is to maintain the momentum of combined military and diplomatic pressure, Mr. Kenney argues.
KEY DATES IN THE WAR IN BOSNIA
April 6, 1992 -- European Community recognizes Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent country after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. The move for independence angers Serbs, and fighting breaks out as it had earlier in Croatia.
Aug. 6, 1992 -- Reports reach the West of Serbian-run concentration camps. International outrage erupts, with sharp criticism coming from candidate Bill Clinton of Bush administration policy.
Dec. 16, 1992 -- Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger accuses Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic of war crimes.
Feb. 28, 1993 -- President Clinton orders air drops of relief supplies to begin in eastern Bosnia. The mission is criticized as largely symbolic.
April 4, 1993 -- Fighting erupts between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, former allies against the Serbs.
Feb. 5, 1994 -- A bloody attack on a Sarajevo marketplace -- apparently by a Serb mortar -- leaves 68 people dead and more than 200 injured. Calls for international action are stepped up.
Feb. 9, 1994 -- NATO gives Bosnian Serbs until Feb. 21 to 'D remove heavy weapons from within a 12-mile radius around Sarajevo or face attack. The Serbs comply.
Feb. 28, 1994 -- NATO forces shoot down four Serbian planes, marking the first time that Western countries have intervened in the war and the first offensive action by NATO.
March 1, 1994 -- Croats and Bosnian Muslims reach a peace accord. Bosnian Serbs continue fighting.
April 10, 1994 -- U.S. planes under NATO command bomb Bosnian Serb targets near the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde, the first NATO attack on ground positions.
April 11, 1994 -- More air strikes conducted against ground positions near Gorazde.