Washington -- WHEN a president is bereft of an organizing principle, policy is made by personalities. The dominant person in national security affairs, especially regarding Bosnia, has been Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
That was a surprise because "General Shali," a refugee from Poland at age 8, is in no way overbearing. He is a good soldier, well liked in the service and among European diplomats; presiding over the drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe was widely thought to be his career-capping job.
This artillery officer floated to the top partly because President Clinton did not want an Air Force general -- with a belief in the ability of air power to intervene decisively in the Balkans -- to be his principal military adviser.
Shali stepped into a vacuum. Anthony Lake, who gives hawkish speeches on Bosnia, does not strongly influence the president; Secretary of State Christopher was burned by our European allies and is twice shy; Defense Secretary Perry is inclined to defer to the Joint Chiefs.
According to readers of confidential cable traffic, Shilly-Shali has long been the foremost exponent of letting the Serbs get away with "force and fraud." He thinks air power is inapplicable, and only massive ground troop intervention, which he opposes on the non-military grounds that it has no backing in the U.S., would stop the Serbs.
That hypercautious advice on air power from an artilleryman led to the continued humiliation of the U.N., the exposure of NATO as impotent and the abdication of U.S. leadership.
For one brief moment, when Mr. Clinton appeared willing to bomb Serbian artillery around Sarajevo, the Serbs backed off. But when General Shalikashvili and Mr. Perry all but invited them into Gorazde, they struck again. Their fresh attack was feebly answered by "pinprick bombing," in Zbigniew Brzezinski's phrase, which only encouraged them to take U.N. hostages, shoot down a NATO plane and snatch back their escrowed weapons.
Now Mr. Clinton is following the advice of the only White House voice capable of challenging General Shilly-Shali: Stan Greenberg, the pollster, is reporting that the sight of a nail-nibbling president amid pushmepullyou advisers is beginning to adversely affect U.S. public opinion.
Result: Wednesday's policy-wonk public analysis by Mr. Clinton about his telephonic wheedling and pleading with other world hand-wringers. He half-threatened to raise the level of tactical pinpricking to "the Sarajevo level" unless the Serbs stop.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell asked: Should the Serbs be prepared for strategic as well as tactical air strikes? Going after their ammo and fuel supplies is how air power could be effective. But Mr. Clinton refused to discuss "the tactical details of our policy . . . until they have been worked out with our allies."
If he had such agreement to get tough, he would surely have announced it. Why not give the Serbs good reason to settle before real bombing began?
But the telesummitry is a charade. We huff and puff; the Serbs pause; we un-huff; the Serbs then blast the next U.N. "safe area."
What will bring the Serbs to the negotiating table with sincerity in their hearts? One thing alone: force, followed by fear of further force. If the president is able to lead, he should lead NATO into these actions:
* Assemble all U.N. forces in Bosnia in defensible positions; provide close air support.
* Destroy the bridges over the Drina river, over which Serbia now supplies its Bosnian puppet forces.
* Bomb 10 of the 30 key Serbian targets on a list already drawn up by NATO commanders; these include ammo dumps, fuel supplies, headquarters. Pause for negotiations before hitting the rest.
In other words, give air power a chance. Belgrade, where war orders come from, has electric utilities not out of reach. If strategic bombing fails to coerce a peace, victims of aggression are no worse off and attackers will have fewer tanks.
Mr. Clinton should cut the Shilly-Shali approach and simultaneously place a resolution before the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo that hobbles the Bosnian Muslims. The world will then see who is for what in Bosnia.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.