The Thin Line in Bosnia

July 30, 1993

President Clinton's sudden return to a policy threatening the use of force in Bosnia has the dual purpose of goading Serbs, Croats and Muslims into a peace agreement and protecting his administration from the domestic fallout that would result from the fall of Sarajevo.

Although polls have consistently shown that Americans do not want to get involved militarily in the terrible Balkan struggle, Mr. Clinton is politician enough to anticipate how public opinion could change if Sarajevo falls, precipitating what his advisers call "the ultimate humanitarian nightmare."

In these maneuvers the administration has to walk the thin line of putting a hard squeeze on Serb aggressors while not encouraging their Muslim victims to become intransigent in Geneva negotiations. It also has to coordinate its policies with the United Nations, NATO and Russia.

Only a week ago, the president was blaming "the opposition of some of the European nations" for his avoidance of a U.S. military response. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was chanting the mantra that "the United States is doing all that it can consistent with our national interest." The instructive response of the Bosnian Serbs was to intensify their hammering of Sarajevo, even to the point of bombarding French peacekeeping troops.

It was this example of an aggressor's overreach that altered the situation, perhaps decisively. The French, who had long feared U.N. military strikes would open their own troops to Serbian attack, did a turn-around by requesting air protection. And the challenge to the U.N. was so blatant, the Clinton administration could at last make the argument that the "national interest" was indeed at risk.

Yet while the U.S. is brandishing its military sword, its major goal is a settlement in Bosnia that would partition the former Yugoslav state into three ethnic provinces -- a solution loathed by the Muslims. The Serbian and Croatian areas in Bosnia would be contiguous to motherland nations that, in time, could well annex them. The Muslims, who before the war constituted 70 percent of the Bosnian population, would be confined to a landlocked enclave covering only 30 percent of the territory. All three rump states would be included within a frail confederation of doubtful durability.

Despite Mr. Clinton's new readiness to protect not only U.N. troops but humanitarian deliveries to the suffering Muslims, Washington's preferred course remains -- and should remain -- well short of U.S. intervention on a scale that could entangle this country in a Balkan quagmire. This is the view of the Pentagon -- and of this newspaper.

Mr. Christopher and other presidential civilian advisers are more bellicose. But not until next week will allied forces have the forward air controllers necessary for precision strikes against Bosnian Serb forces. These few crucial days must be used to damp down a conflict that threatens the peace of Europe and the worldwide peacekeeping authority of the United Nations.

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