HOW far can Serbian leaders go in their contempt for the rules of international order without provoking a meaningful reaction from the U.S. government? Is there a limit to the shame President Clinton will feel without acting?
Those questions are raised by Serbian conduct in recent days. It has been increasingly brazen, increasingly contemptuous of U.N. orders and world hand-wringing. The Serbs have stopped trying to conceal their belief that the U.N., and in particular the United States, are paper tigers.
Thus the Bosnian Serbs, in their self-styled parliament, refused to make even an empty gesture toward the Vance-Owen plan for peace in Bosnia. They flatly rejected it. Their leader, Radovan Karadzic, said that in three weeks they would unite the territory they hold, more than 70 percent of Bosnia, with the 30 percent of Croatia seized by Serb gunmen there. The next step will be anschluss -- unification -- with Serbia itself.
The Serbs broke a cease-fire to resume shelling Srebrenica, one of the last towns in eastern Bosnia held by the Bosnian government forces. It was "a flagrant violation," said a spokesman for the U.N. relief forces, Cmdr. Barry Frewer of the Canadian Navy.
No one can doubt any longer what the Serbs intend to do. They are going to keep on killing Muslims, and driving them out by terror, until they have all of Bosnia that they want.
President Clinton has so far responded to Serbian aggression with actions far more timid than he favored as a candidate last summer. Then, he called for U.S. bombing of Serbian military targets and ending the arms embargo on Bosnian government forces. Now, he has dropped food to encircled Bosnians and got the U.N. to vote for the meaningless enforcement of the no-fly zone.
His timidity is understandable in political terms. Several factors have held him back from real action.
First, public opinion is not in favor of U.S. involvement in the Yugoslav conflict. Relatively few Americans probably know about the Nazi-like methods used by the Serbs. Shamefully, reporters failed to ask a question about the issue at Mr. Clinton's press conference. Newspaper editorials have faded away.
Second, the president has wanted to keep attention -- his and the public's -- focused on his domestic program. He broke that rule only when Boris Yeltsin's crisis seemed to him to demand an immediate response.
Third, Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has argued that air strikes on Serbian forces will be ineffectual. Defense Secretary Les Aspin, off to a fumbling start in his job, has taken the Powell line.
Fourth, U.S. allies have argued against any strong U.S. action. The British and French, who have troops among the U.N forces protecting Bosnian relief operations, fear they will be attacked by the Serbs if the United States does anything.
All those are genuine reasons. But they will not count for much if, in the end, the world's only superpower has allowed a policy of racial terror to succeed in Europe in the last decade of the 20th century.
Mr. Clinton knows that. He and his advisers are increasingly concerned and ashamed at what is going on in Bosnia.
Why is it up to him to act? For the reason that Margaret Thatcher explained in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy recently:
"There is no escape . . . from the leadership of America."
The issue in Bosnia, Lady Thatcher correctly said, is "resolve." The West "in fact has the aircraft and the missiles to go in and take out the Serbs." The Serbian aggressors are not the brave Partisans of World War II. They are cowards who kill women and children.
If Clinton has the resolve -- the courage, the determination -- I do not doubt that he could win the necessary support in Congress and the country for strong action. After all, a case is not hard to make.
"My fellow Americans, nearly 50 years ago we and our allies defeated the menace of Hitler and the Nazis. We cannot allow Nazi methods to be revived successfully on the continent of Europe. It would be too terrible for us and our children to let that specter loose again. . . ."
Perhaps Serbian leaders, in their cruelty and disregard for law, will cross a line at which Mr. Clinton's human feelings -- his shame at our timidity -- will turn into action. Or perhaps the cynics are right, and Democrats' foreign policy is the same as
Republicans', only they feel worse.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.