Other nations can be excused for thinking that the United States is prepared to fight for a multi-ethnic Bosnia to the last British, French or Dutch peacekeeper -- or, failing that, to the last Serb, Muslim and Croat soldier.
The first alternative really is a matter only London and Paris can determine. President Clinton's course is limited to fulfilling or reneging on his pledge to help get his allies out of Bosnia, if that is their wish. The closer the administration comes to putting 25,000 troops on the ground to cover an allied withdrawal, the more it shudders at the prospect of taking casualties in an action hardly supported by public opinion.
The second alternative, symbolized by Sen. Bob Dole's feckless proposal to arm Muslim forces, raises grim questions: What end would be served in prolonging this latest of Balkan civil wars? How, conceivably, could the Muslims ever hope to create a secure state opposed by the dominant Serbs? Is the U.S. prepared to send in trainers and logistic experts to help one side in a Balkan struggle? What would be pro-Serb Russia's reaction? Would the war then spread to contiguous nations?
What has happened in Srebrenica this week is horrifying, deplorable, a testament to the bloody-mindedness of the Bosnian Serb aggressors. It could very well force a closing down of the ill-starred United Nations intervention force unless a Serbian victory leads to a negotiated settlement.
Srebrenica and other Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia have long been seen as untenable outposts. During the heyday of drawing up partition plans a couple of years ago, more realistic mapmakers envisaged a trade-off under which the enclaves would go to the Serbs in exchange for territory strengthening Sarajevo's links to the heart of Muslim territory in central Bosnia. That still remains the best hope for a negotiated settlement. But absent a peace agreement, the U.N. protection force is hostage to a status quo now shattered.
What to do in this debacle? French President Jacques Chirac's call for military action to recapture Srebrenica has been rightly dismissed by British leaders as a show of Gaullist posturing. Having resisted American air strikes to protect French peacekeepers from Serb reprisals, would Paris now subject its scattered contingents to even greater danger by sending a rapid reaction force against the Serb army? That seems unlikely.
So the question boils down to withdrawal or setting up a rump Muslim state acceptable to the Serbs and under U.N. protection. If withdrawal is the choice, the United States should honor its commitments to help its allies rather than risk the shattering of NATO. But by no means is this country committed to be the arms supplier and trainer to a Muslim government now locked in a desperate struggle for survival. Such a course would draw the U.S. inexorably deeper into a struggle that could widen until it includes vital American interests. It should be avoided at all costs.