Paris -- The NATO air strike Monday on Udbina in Serb-held Croatia was another demonstration of the futility that has overtaken Western policy in what formerly was Yugoslavia.
Both it and yesterday's second strike in retaliation for rocket fire against NATO planes were meticulously planned and controlled to do no significant damage. U.N. and NATO officers designed them to pose minimum risk to those Serb forces in Croatia who in the past few days have carried out their own air raids on the Muslim-held town of Bihac, in defiance both of Bihac's status as a U.N.-proclaimed "safe area" and the U.N. and NATO's long-proclaimed but little-enforced air exclusion zone.
It was supposed to be a "signal" -- a "message" -- to the Serbs. A Protection Force spokesman in Sarajevo characterizes the Monday raid as "not punishment but prevention."
What did this message say? That if there is another Serb violation of the safe area and the air exclusion zone, NATO will strike harder? Of course not. "Safe" Bihac, at this writing, is about to be taken by the Serbs and their dissident Muslim allies.
So long as U.N. Protection Force troops are in or near Serb-held areas, they are hostage to the Serbs, and the United Nations will not allow NATO to take any action that can be expected to provoke Serb reprisals against the U.N. forces. There is an ill-armed and poorly equipped Bangladeshi U.N. unit in Bihac.
After the lessons American and other military commanders learned from a policy of "sending messages" to the enemy in Vietnam -- limited bombing operations meant to modify enemy conduct through their threat of escalating violence to follow -- one might have thought the very expression would have been banned from the military vocabulary.
Those Vietnam "messages" were serious, in a way this NATO action was not: Escalation could (and did) follow. The messages nonetheless never had the intended effect, except when compliance suited the strategy of the Vietnamese Communists.
The latter, like the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs, had a fixed strategy and flexible tactics, as well as fundamental contempt -- for an opponent -- in ex-Yugoslavia, the United Nations -- lacking in understanding of their war and without the stomach to fight it their way.
The actual message to the Serbs of Monday's attack was "don't take this seriously -- please." The message the attack was meant to deliver to the American and West European publics made uneasy by the war was "see how strong yet controlled NATO and the U.N. are; something is being done about Bihac, Sarajevo and the war. A few more months and a peace plan may be signed."
The message to the Serbs was 'Don't take this seriously -- please.' The message to the American public was 'Something is being done.' The signal to the Bosnian government: 'Forget the West.'
The signal to the Bosnian government, which still seems to possess some dangerous illusions about the possibility of a significant American intervention on Bosnia's behalf, should have been read as: "Forget the West."
All of this follows from the conflicting European and American attitudes toward the war, and the contrary policies thereby produced. Europe's primary policy now -- essentially that of France and Britain, the two principal contributors of troops to UNPROFOR -- is to protect its soldiers and aid workers from the Serbs.
That obviously is not how the Europeans began. The governments that have sent soldiers to the former Yugoslavia were moved by the honorable ambition, largely achieved, to do some good for the victims of the war and by the hope, which has been thwarted, of brokering a settlement.
America's policy now is to distance itself from European policy, so to avoid the opprobrium of complicity in non-action to help the victims of aggression, but still without Washington's actually doing anything for them.
The new Republican leaders of Congress were lions of righteousness when in opposition, attacking the Clinton administration for failing to save aggression's victims. The draft proposals for American help to Bosnia, which Congress ostentatiously demanded be delivered by the Clinton administration to Congress this month, now find little interest among those who would have to vote for them.
Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., expected to become speaker of the House of Representatives, now says of these proposals, "Frankly, I can't imagine why we would go in and provide that kind of money. Bosnia is largely a European problem." And the Europeans have done something, while the U.S. did next to nothing.
However, humanitarian intervention has been Europe's substitute for political and strategic policy, and this now has to be acknowledged an enormous error, with grievous consequences for the people of Yugoslavia and paralyzing ones for the Europeans.
The Europeans, by substituting humanitarian aid for political policy, have placed themselves in the power of the aggressors, and now must rationalize a situation in which they can be accused of a form of objective collaboration with aggression. Nobody wishes to talk much about this, but it is true. It should be spoken about, because it is an inherent danger in all humanitarian operations of this kind, as true in Rwanda and Zaire today as in Bosnia. The same mistakes should not be made again.
8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.