The role of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia is to prevent genocide. The behavior of all parties can be understood only in that context.
(Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group. Attempting it is a crime under the United Nations Convention on Genocide, in effect since 1951.)
The Bosnian Serb psychiatrist-politician Radovan Karadzic threatened the Muslims of Bosnia with "disappearance" if they did not accept inclusion in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. They did not.
In the war which ensued in 1992, with Dr. Karadzic as president of the Bosnian Serb republic and Gen. Ratko Mladic commander of its forces, Muslims' disappearance was implemented with concentration camps, mass murder, mass rape and systematic razing of mosques.
This was stopped by the U.N. peacekeeping operation, which declared safe havens where Bosnian Serb forces must not kill civilians and kept roads open for food distribution by humanitarian agencies.
It was backed up by the U.N.'s threat to ask NATO to bomb Bosnian Serb positions. The United States, NATO's principal bomber, was eager while France and Britain, with troops at risk, opposed bombing.
And so the Bosnian Serb forces nibbled away with resolution and purpose lacking in the great nations arrayed to deter them. Time and again, U.N. threats were not carried out. The few bombing raids were harmless rituals.
In April, the Yugoslav Tribunal, established by the U.N. named Dr. Karadzic, General Mladic and their shadowy interior minister, Mico Stanisic, as suspects in the genocidal operations of 1992. That was another threat -- of indictment.
In late May, after Serb shelling of civilians in Sarajevo, the U.N. called on NATO to bomb. U.S. planes hit a Bosnian Serb ammunition dump within a mile of President Karadzic's headquarters in Pale, a ski resort just east of Sarajevo.
President Karadzic and General Mladic responded by seizing peace-keepers on a scale never before attempted and videotaped some of them handcuffed to likely targets.
President Karadzic's terms for their release were a pledge that ,, NATO would not bomb Bosnian Serb targets again. That would give Serbs a license to kill Muslim civilians, leaving the peacekeepers no purpose.
The taking of primarily French and British hostages created a national crisis in Britain for the unpopular Conservative Prime Minister John Major and in France for the newly elected conservative President Jacques Chirac. Both responded with bellicose words.
The hostage-takers, suspected of international crimes, represent no recognized government. So whatever the American president and Congress decide to be an appropriate American response, the French and British are sorely tempted to mount a punitive expedition to show that bandits cannot humiliate great nations. The creation of a rapid-reaction force was to be understood in those terms.
Capturing President Karadzic and General Mladic for trial would be a tempting but difficult objective. If the U.S. refused to assist such an expedition with intelligence and air power, NATO would die.
What deterred the European powers right away was the hostages they wished to free. Holding the hostages remained the Bosnian Serbs' chief protection against reprisals for their taking them.
The catch was the desire of the Bosnian Serbs' mentor, President Slobodan Milosevic, to free his Serb Republic from U.N. economic sanctions.
The good-Serb, bad-Serb game of Presidents Milosevic and Karadzic has helped them both until now. Mr. Milosevic and his republic are officially untarred by the crimes of Dr. Karadzic and his.
But Mr. Milosevic has readily dumped allies who outlived their usefulness. He is a Communist while Dr. Karadzic is a social conservative. They will have a reckoning.
So the drama was played out with President Milosevic acting as as intermediary, along with Greece, the two being the one Orthodox and pro-Serb member of NATO. What assurances were given or demanded is open to conjecture. The result was the phased release of hostages.
But it is quite clear that, whatever is decided in Washington, the British and French governments have Dr. Karadzic's number and will not forget. Which is probably all right with Mr. Milosevic.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.