WASHINGTON -- The virtual collapse of the Muslim town of Bihac to the Serbs is more than a setback in efforts to end the 2 1/2 -year-old Bosnian war: It shakes the foundation of European security and America's role in maintaining it.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the mightiest military alliance the world has ever seen, has shown itself to lack the will to fulfill even the modest assignment of deterring Serbian attacks on Bihac and other United Nations-declared Muslim safe areas.
The result is one of the most bitter splits in the 45-year history of the alliance, which has undermined not only Bosnian peace efforts but the chances of resolving any of Europe's ethnic crises. The split also raises doubts about NATO's ability to broaden its protective umbrella to Eastern European states clamoring for it.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole's call Sunday for withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers and a lifting of the arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government triggered a torrent of anger yesterday from high-ranking European and U.N. officials, all accusing the United States of being unwilling to make a serious effort toward peace. Mr. Dole had blamed the British and French for hampering NATO.
"I think when we have thousands of brave British soldiers, some of whom have lost their lives, in Bosnia . . . it ill becomes people in countries who have not provided a single soldier on the ground to make that kind of criticism," said Malcolm Rifkind, the British defense secretary.
The recriminations over Bosnia also show that NATO and the United Nations are incompatible. And the Clinton administration's inability to impose its will on other NATO members casts doubt on Washington's role as the alliance's leader, manager and chief bankroller.
"There have always been problems in NATO," said Eliot Cohen, director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "But this is qualitatively different. This is a sign that the alliance is in very bad shape.
"This is the kind of issue with which, if NATO is going to survive the post-Cold War world, it should be able to deal. And it just is not happening."
With the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO was thrown into an identity crisis. As a vehicle for limiting conflicts, it overlapped with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which includes Eastern European states and Russia.
NATO has managed to survive for several reasons: Unlike the CSCE, which has no military arm, it is a superb war machine, developed through years of coordination among its members. It also acts as a brake on inter-European rivalry, particularly any expansionist tendencies by a wealthy and unified Germany, and it provides insurance against renewed imperialism by Russia.
But a longtime pillar of NATO's strength has been the idea that the United States and Europe were indivisible. This pillar started to crack in 1992, when the Bush administration declared that the first post-Cold War military crisis in Europe, the war in the former Yugoslavia, was a problem for the Europeans themselves to solve. But the United States has been unable to stay out of the conflict completely, largely because of domestic outrage over Bosnian Serb aggression and atrocities.
Washington has repeatedly taken the side of the conflicts' victims, but has refused to put the lives of American ground troops on the line to help them. From the start, this stance has pitted the United States against France and Britain, who want to avoid taking sides and simply end the conflict. Both London and Paris have sent thousands of peacekeepers to the former Yugoslavia who act in some ways as a buffer.
After once vowing to help the Bosnian government to achieve a peace settlement to its liking, the Clinton administration has been pulled closer to neutrality.
By now, it is even willing to accept what it once considered repugnant: something akin to a Greater Serbia. This would mean allowing Serbia to link up with the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs.
Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman, said yesterday that if Bosnian Serbs accepted the territorial integrity of Bosnia, a confederation between Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs could be discussed.
But John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution warned that appeasement of the Bosnian Serbs won't stop the war, because dTC they're not strong enough militarily to prevent renewed Muslim assaults.
Inevitably, he sees the United States being drawn into the conflict to keep it from spreading. And the 1 million people displaced from their homes in the former Yugoslavia will, he says, serve as "a pump for illegal organizations" the way millions of Palestinian refugees once did.
"We can't walk away from it or it will come and get us," he said. "It will continue to grow until it compels attention."
Although the U.N. Security Council has yet to grapple with the possibility, its peacekeeping forces may be forced to withdraw -- if not now, then next spring when heavy fighting resumes.
U.S. troop involvement
The United States is committed to helping with the withdrawal, a task that may require tens of thousands of troops who would be exposed to hostile fire. The peacekeepers would certainly be forced out if Mr. Dole and others in Congress force the Clinton administration to lift the arms embargo currently imposed on the Bosnian government.
This, Mr. McCurry warned yesterday, would get the United States so deeply involved in a spreading conflict, training and equipping the Bosnian Muslim forces, that "ultimately, you're looking at the situation where you'd have to commit ground troops."
"This obviously is a tough moment and there's not any miracle cure that you extract from your bag of options and say, 'This is the way we're going to solve the problem of Bosnia,' " a top State Department official said.
Bosnia by itself won't cause NATO to collapse. "What you have to worry about more is some wasting disease, where from the outside it looks OK, but it just doesn't have anything like the muscle, the vigor, or the coordination it used to have," Mr. Cohen said.
One symptom already apparent is that despite American prodding, NATO has been unable to mount effective airstrikes against the Serbs.
While Britain and France go along with the United States at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, they work through the United Nations using their peacekeepers on the ground as a reason to limit the NATO threat.
Only last night, NATO told the United Nations that it would provide close air support around Bihac only if it is also authorized to eliminate a number of Serbian air-defense systems, but the United Nations rejected the proposal.
Inside the Pentagon, NATO's subordination to U.N. authority is now more of a concern than any perceived threat to the alliance's survival from the disputes in Bosnia.
"The sense in the cage [the Pentagon] is that the strength of the alliance is such that it will not be riven asunder by the issue of Bosnia, although clearly there is concern about that issue," said a senior Pentagon officer. "What this all boils down to is, you either do it with NATO and without the U.N, or you don't do it. You can't do it with both of them. The U.N. doesn't have what it takes to get it done."
Mr. Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution says the only answer to the situation is to send into Bosnia a well-trained international force numbering perhaps 100,000. But this couldn't have a distinctly American character, or it would be seen as anti-Serb, he said.
This raises the question of whether the United States can long continue its role as first among equals and coordinator of NATO, particularly when it is unwilling to commit its own forces to a festering European conflict.
"Our involvement on and off has been theatrical and irresponsible," says David Calleo, professor of European studies at the Hopkins. "Our legitimacy as a leader is rather shaky among the Europeans themselves."
Continued U.S. leadership in all NATO's doings looks increasingly out of place in the modern Europe, whose wealthy nations are already embracing the former East Bloc economically, he said. And it is preventing Europeans themselves, particularly Germany, from assuming responsibility for their own security.
"They're large, rich countries. Why the hell can't they manage their own security?" he asks.