WASHINGTON — AS they inch toward intervention in the Balkans, the danger for Western leaders is that they may begin a military action without a clear idea of how they want it to end.
American and European air power and troops could force delivery of humanitarian aid, open up detention camps, perhaps free encircled cities. But they cannot make the ex-Yugoslav ethnic groups like each other. They cannot keep them apart, considering Bosnia's tangled skein of ethnic regions.
So what constitutes victory, if when you leave fighting just flares up again?
"We need to know how we get out before we get in," insisted United States Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a Tuesday meeting with defense reporters.
The West has two immediate goals in the former Yugoslavia, noted Senator Nunn: delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged populations, and relief of the already-infamous detention camps.
"There has to be a longer-range view that these goals fit into," he said.
For now, at least, the Western World's strategy for this problem seems to be an attempt to minimize the involvement of their military forces.
The new UN Security Council resolution is careful to limit its authorization of use of force to delivery of relief supplies. It says nothing about stopping the fighting in general through force.
US officials say the resolution can be interpreted as allowing military action to free detention camps, however, since it calls for aid delivery "wherever required."
Conceivably, this could include the sites where Bosnians are being forcibly interned.
In any case, even these limited missions would be a tough military task. That has been shown by the on-again, off-again nature of the current Western airlift into Sarajevo.
"Delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina will be a major challenge," admitted Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles before Congress Tuesday.
For this very reason the Pentagon has long resisted being drawn into the Balkans crisis. American officers don't compare the situation to the clear-cut case of Kuwait, where open land and mass forces lent themselves to destruction by massive firepower.
Bosnia, they say, is like the Lebanon of the early 1980s: a place rent by guerrilla war, with no clear enemies or friends, a possible quagmire in the making.
According to Pentagon assessments, there are 19 separate war lords now fighting on Bosnian territory. Largest of the major armed elements is the Bosnian Serb army - 35,000 strong, trained and armed by the former Yugoslav federal military.
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the old Yugoslavian strategy of national defense had been one of Mao-like guerrilla resistance. Stores of munitions and weapons and military defense structures are strewn throughout the country.
"While we could certainly suppress the level of fighting among the combatants if we chose to do so, our own forces would become the objects of attack and of a guerrilla war that could have no end," Stephen Hadley, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, told Congress. Cheney favors overland aid
Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and other US officials have long said that the best way to move humanitarian aid into battered Sarajevo is not through the air, but via land convoy from the Adriatic port of Split.
This 200-mile journey, much of it along mountain roads, could require at least 10,000 ground troops plus air support for full security.
The Pentagon says publicly that providing security for Sarajevo itself, plus the road into it, would take 60,000 to 120,000 soldiers.
US officials have made it very clear that they won't be contributing any ground troops to this effort. But it is not clear where these troops would come from, as no European country has offered its own brigades, either.
The sight of US warplanes and attack helicopters could have an effect of intimidation on Serb militiamen, most of whom undoubtedly have never seen the frightening demonstration of what $25 million can buy in airpower.
But if they get over the shock the military use of air strikes could be limited.
US warplanes could destroy fixed artillery emplacements, but finding quick-moving mortars in forested mountain terrain would be very difficult.
As to the Serb snipers who have terrorized Sarajevo in recent months, "fighting snipers with airplanes would be as effective as fighting pickpockets with airplanes," says John Macartney, an international relations professor at American University and former Air Force senior staff officer.
According to Senator Nunn, the best targets for US warplanes might be demonstration shots against such high-value installations as bridges. Yugoslav lanes present target
The airplanes of the ex-Yugoslav Air Force, now often employed in air strikes against Bosnia, could be easily destroyed, said the Senate Armed Services chairman.
But true peace won't come to Bosnia until militias begin to disarm and the situation has calmed down enough to repatriate refugees.
Considering the destruction already wrought in the Balkans war, such a state might be far off. And even if the bullets are done away with, the blood feud might remain.
There is great bitterness on both sides, and to ensure that neighbors won't burn down each others' houses "you'd have to get rid of all the matches in the country," said Mr. Macartney.