Paris. -- NATO is on its way toward a crash, as renewal of the Yugoslav war comes closer. Washington seems to underestimate the danger, its policy apparently a divided one, offering nominal support to the Contact Group's doomed effort to get a settlement with Belgrade, while giving new encouragement to the Bosnian and Croatian governments who have lost lands to recover.
Many in Europe and in the U.N. Protection Force in ex-Yugoslavia are convinced that the United States is also secretly arming the Bosnian army to renew the war this spring. The U.N. military command insists that transport aircraft have been landing at the Bosnian-held airport at Tuzla, in northern Bosnia, while Bosnian troops keep U.N. patrols at a distance. American spokesmen for NATO deny this, saying UNPROFOR officers are confused or mistaken.
Washington is making a new effort to strengthen the "Bosnian Federation" created by the Croats and Muslims a year ago under American sponsorship. The State Department's Daniel Serwer, coordinator of support for this federation, called last week for the formation of an international group of "Friends of the Federation" to lend it political and economic backing. He suggested that Austria and Germany might like to be early members. The Austrian government and the U.S. have just made known a jointly sponsored meeting in support of the Federation in Vienna in mid-March.
This new American effort on behalf of the Bosnian-Croatian Federation seems to imply American support not only for Bosnia but for Croatia's claim to get back all or most of Serb-held Krajina. The Croatian government has already terminated the U.N.'s mandate in Krajina as of the end of this month, suggesting that the war for control of that region may then resume.
If that happens, and if the U.S. unilaterally renounces the arms embargo on Bosnia, as Congress wants and the administration has earlier promised, sanctions on Serbia are likely to be swept aside. Moscow has implied as much. Russia is one of the Contact Group, and has just signed a new military-cooperation agreement with Belgrade, effective when sanctions are lifted. Is Washington prepared for a renewal of the war with Russia supporting Serbia?
In principle, this American support for Bosnia's defense of liberal and multi-ethnic government, and for both countries in the federation as victims of aggression, is beyond reproach. But it is necessary to ask if Washington is prepared to take responsibility for what may follow.
Neither the new congressional majority nor the Clinton administration intends to do anything in Yugoslavia that would involve serious commitment of American forces or serious expenditures. Since the principal European members of NATO oppose what the U.S. seems to be doing, and French and British troops supply the largest contingents in the U.N. force, the impending trans-Atlantic political conflict is obvious, whatever contingency plans are worked out for evacuating endangered U.N. units.
NATO itself is coming apart in ways that have nothing to do with Yugoslavia. Its new secretary general, Willy Claes, is accused of involvement in a kickback scandal concerning Belgian military procurement. The Dutch government says he should step down until this is settled. Others at NATO headquarters agree.
Mr. Claes has also unwisely said that NATO should prepare for conflict with Islam -- later corrected to "Islamists." It would seem that he is an uncritical reader of Harvard's Samuel Huntington, prophet of impending wars between civilizations -- at a moment when Washington and the European capitals are doing their best to maintain constructive relations with the mainstream Islamic governments.
The issue of NATO expansion eastward divides the alliance while provoking Russia. There is no common Western approach toward Russia, nor even a single American stand. The Clinton administration still clings to Boris Yeltsin as if he were Russian democracy's only hope, while others have turned away from him -- Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, once a Yeltsin admirer, the latest to do so.
NATO holds together for the moment because it has yet to be tested. If serious fighting starts up again in Bosnia and Croatia, with the United States backing the Bosnian-Croat federation, or arming it, the trouble will come. It could prove very bad trouble for NATO. As a result the Europeans could find themselves left on their own. Washington should keep in mind that the United States would then be on its own, too.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.