WASHINGTON — TIRED of waiting for a unified European response that never came, the United States has now clearly taken the lead in organizing global reaction to the crisis in Yugoslavia.
But with thousands already killed and hundreds of thousands homeless, war and terror appear so entrenched in the Balkans that United Nations economic sanctions may be too late, if not too little.
The UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions, passed last Saturday, held open the possibility of "further steps" to stop fighting that the West now blames largely on Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. And official US government statements are at least sounding much tougher.
The grave events in the Balkans "constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," said President Bush in a letter announcing the freezing of US assets of Serbia and its ally, Montenegro, in the US.
Is this the Persian Gulf all over again, with Serbia cast as Iraq, and Croatia and Bosnia a collective Kuwait? Will sanctions be followed by military force?
US officials have continually said American troops will not be used unilaterally to halt the bloodshed. But the UN vote called for establishment of a security zone around the airport of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to allow landing of humanitarian aid. Some type of international armed presence might then be needed to allow passage of aid convoys.
"Economic sanctions are a lot better than nothing, but I don't think they're enough to stop Milosevic," says Ivo Banac, a Yale history professor and Yugoslav expert.
It has been obvious for two weeks that the UN would vote some kind of retributive package against Serbia, since US Secretary of State James Baker III blasted the Serbs in remarks at a conference in Lisbon and said the Security Council should pass sanctions.
The resolution requires nations of the world to halt all trade with the rump Yugoslav state of Serbia and Montenegro, and freeze Yugoslav foreign assets. On Sunday, President Bush sent a letter to Congress officially freezing some $214 million in Yugoslav financial reserves held in the US. In the short run these economic curbs are unlikely to stir popular discontent. Unlike Iraq, Serbia and Montenegro produce all the food they need, a fourth of their own oil, and their own electricity.
Reports from Serbian media indicate the government has been stockpiling petroleum in anticipation of an embargo, and has already transferred many of its foreign financial holdings out of Western banks.
But, in the longer run, the sanctions will be an extra blow to an economy that was already tottering. War expenses have been high, and Serbian inflation is running at least 80 percent a month.
"Serbia is still predominantly an agricultural country, and as long as farmers produce food and sell it the country will function," says Ivo Banac of Yale. "But given the inflation rate how, long is that farmer going to be selling his chickens for worthless paper?"
Another attractive option to the West would be for the sanctions to spark domestic discontent sufficient to overthrow President Milosevic. Indeed, Sunday saw the largest demonstration to date in the Serb capital of Belgrade. Some 50,000 people marched through downtown to commemorate victims of the war and protest an election the opposition to Milosevic branded a farce.
But US experts point out that Belgrade is Milosevic's weak point.
His support comes from rural areas and smaller cities throughout Serbia.
"Right now it appears Milosevic is not likely to soon be overthrown," says Dan Nelson, a professor of Russian area studies at Georgetown University and former top adviser to the House majority leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri. Dr. Nelson argues that the US will, in the end, have to use far more effort to end the fighting than would have been necessary earlier.
The war may yet spread beyond the ex-Yugoslav republics where it has so far largely been centered: Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian enclave in Serbia, has long been considered a tinderbox.
Macedonia, still not recognized by the West because of Greek protests that it must change its name, is one of the most ethnically mixed and volatile areas of the country.
If Kosovo erupts, Albania itself might be tempted to jump in, greatly broadening the conflict.