THE NATO ultimatum to Serbian forces around Sarajevo could be, at long last, a first step toward ending the bloodiest aggression in Europe in 50 years. Or it could be an empty gesture by politicians trying only to escape embarrassment.
On the encouraging side, the allies seem to be serious about using air strikes if the Serbian aggressors resume shelling civilians in Sarajevo or fail to move their heavy weapons back 12 miles in the next 10 days. Previous NATO threats have been jokes, and quickly seen as such by the Serbs.
It is a plus also that the Clinton administration did not give way to angry Russian protests against the plan. With luck, this could mark the end of the administration's misbegotten belief that it must yield to whatever Boris Yeltsin wants abroad in order to support his position at home.
But the NATO decision, if examined honestly, has to be seen as extremely modest, if not indeed feeble. It lacks both military and political elements necessary to make it effective.
1. The demand on the Serbs is limited to Sarajevo. They will be free to press new attacks on the Bosnians in other parts of the country, notably Bihac in the northwest.
2. The ultimatum does not even assure an end to the murder of civilians in Sarajevo. It does not purport to affect light mortars, machine guns or the sniper rifles that have had such deadly effect. It exempts from the exclusion zone the town of Pale, 10 miles from Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serb military headquarters. And in any event the Serbs have artillery with a range of more than 12 miles.
3. NATO has not asked for an end to the siege of Sarajevo. Going to or from the city will still require passing through Serbian roadblocks.
4. If the Serbs ignore the ultimatum, NATO threatened only to attack their heavy weapons. There are much more important targets for any meaningful air threat: the bridges connecting Serbia to Bosnia, petroleum tanks, military headquarters like that at Pale.
5. NATO members, in particular the United States, did not decide to ignore as without legal basis the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia. That is a vital issue of principle: not to deny a U.N. member state the means of self-defense when it has been attacked.
6. By asking that the Bosnians in Sarajevo also give up their few heavy weapons, the NATO ultimatum equated victims and aggressors. It even commended the outrageous idea that Sarajevo be put under United Nations administration. Have the Bosnians stood up against genocidal assaults for the last two years in order to be ruled by Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his inept bureaucracy?
Over all, what is lacking in the NATO decision is a sense of objectives and strategy. The objectives must be limited; but they surely have to include identification and punishment of the aggressor, in order to deter other demagogic nationalists who are waiting to tear Europe apart.
The Bosnian war is the first test of whether peace and security can be maintained in Europe in the new tensions of the post-Cold War era. It is a test of NATO's relevance to that task.
The ultimatum to the Serbian forces does at least signify that NATO sees the challenge that the Bosnian conflict represents. But it is not at least not yet a serious response to the dangerous precedent of successful aggression against a recognized state.
Can we hope for a real commitment by the United States and its allies?
Will they act forcefully when the Serbian leaders resume their aggression?
For the Serbs did not wait long to break the truce they had agreed to as NATO formulated its ultimatum.
The night after the ultimatum, Serbian gunners around Sarajevo let loose again, and shells exploded near the parliament building. A Serbian breach in the cease-fire would hardly be surprising, considering all the past lies and broken promises. After all, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, promised last Oct. 9: "The siege of Sarajevo is over."
The hope is frail, the reasons for cynicism substantial.
In announcing the NATO action, President Clinton said the United States "will not stand idly by in the face of a conflict that affects our interests, offends our consciences and disrupts the peace."
But he had stood idly by for a year, and George Bush before him, while 200,000 people were killed and two million driven from their homes. Only public revulsion at the killing of 68 people in Sarajevo's market last Saturday moved Clinton to act.
If the North Atlantic Alliance has the will to resist genocidal aggression, and the strategy, we have not yet seen them.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.