WASHINGTON — EVEN as the pace of Washington slows during its traditional August vacation slump, United States officials have a message to convey to Bosnian Serbs: We're still watching you.
Warnings of NATO airstrikes appear to have persuaded the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from a pair of strategic peaks overlooking Sarajevo.
While the US government considers this a positive step, it wants to persuade the besieging Serbs that the threat of force is still dangling over them.
"We are looking for relief for the citizens of Sarajevo," said State Department spokesman Michael McCurry in a written statement over the weekend.
"The mountaintops are important, but fundamentally what is needed is food, water, electricity, and an end to violence and shelling in the area."
Whether Bosnian Serb leaders will take this message to heart remains to be seen. To this point they have proved themselves masters of the small gesture, the concession that satisfies the international community just enough to deflate pressure for NATO bombing.
That the West intends only to ease Sarajevo's suffering, and not to reverse Serb military gains, is clear. In a radio interview on Aug. 15 Bosnia's Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic complained bitterly that "the world is indifferent to what is happening here."
Reversing his insistence that Bosnia must remain a unitary, multiethnic state, Mr. Izetbegovic said he would accept a partition of his country into Muslim, Croat, and Serb cantonments - at least for now.
Observers took this as indication that Izetbegovic would return to the table at Geneva-based Bosnia peace talks, which are scheduled to resume today. The Bosnian leader had been boycotting the talks, apparently to see if NATO's threats meant full-scale intervention on his side.
Once they resume, the talks still have difficult issues to resolve, even with Izetbegovic accepting the concept of partition. Primary among them is the future status of Sarajevo itself. Having fought so hard to defend the city, the Muslim government says it can hardly imagine giving up part of Sarajevo as part of a peace settlement. Bosnian Serbs, on the other hand, claim that they should be able to control some Sarajevo suburbs, with Muslims retaining the heart of the city.
The size and status of Muslim-held enclaves in eastern Bosnia are similarly at issue. "If the maps are not fair, nothing will be signed," Izetbegovic told Sarajevo radio.
Whatever happens in Geneva, in Washington the tension of waiting for airstrikes relaxed quickly after weeks of increasing expectations. Reflecting the feeling that military action is not imminent was the fact that top officials all fled the city at once.
In doing so they were taking a cue from their boss. With his economic package finally signed into law, President Clinton was at last report headed for Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was off for two weeks in California. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was in Wisconsin for a week's break - on the heels of an audit that showed his May vacation in Venice had cost taxpayers $35,000 in expenses for his entourage.
Still, with modern communications, the dispersal of these officials, in fact, would not hinder any retaliatory action if Bosnian Serbs do not continue to loosen their strangulation of Sarajevo. A NATO committee could be assembled in Brussels to approve airstrikes "in 75 minutes," according to a NATO spokesman.
NATO has agreed that UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali would have final say over any initial action. US officials maintain this is not a large problem, something only one step removed from a formality. Critics, however, complain that it is a real hindrance and shows yet again that in Bosnia the West is nothing but a paper tiger.
"NATO and Europe have failed miserably in this," says Dr. Dan Nelson, an Old Dominion University foreign policy professor and former foreign policy adviser to the Democratic House leadership.
By allowing the UN to control the on/off switch that would lead to airstrikes, the US has given Security Council member Russia a veto over any action, Mr. Nelson maintains. And he believes Russia is unlikely to approve of action against Serbs, who have long been allies and ethnic brothers.
What's needed now is a focus on preventing further ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, according to Nelson. With NATO toothless and the European Community unable to exert geopolitical influence, some kind of new institution must be cobbled together.
"I am no longer convinced we have the instruments necessary to protect ourselves" against new world threats such as Bosnia, says Nelson.
Meanwhile, Western nations continued an airlift of hospital patients from Sarajevo. The effort has been sparked by publicity given the case of 5-year old Irma Hadzimuratovic, the Muslim girl gravely wounded by shrapnel who was evacuated by British airlift last week.
The airlift has not been without controversy. A UN doctor complained that it has turned into a public relations effort purely to appease opinion in Western nations. Wounded children are being paraded like "animals in a zoo," said Patrick Peillod, head of the UN evacuation committee in Sarajevo. British teams leading the evacuation have cast about for more children to include in the airlift and have been reduced to including several who could in fact have waited weeks or months, complained Peillod.