Bosnia Conflict Wavers Between Attacks, Talks

NATO constraints on airstrikes have allowed Bosnian Serbs to regain military control of almost all of besieged Balkan nation

FOR the most part, this is the way the Bosnian war has gone: When a crisis looms, the United States and its Western allies ponder options.

Bosnian Serbs pull triggers.

This imbalance between irresolution and will by the West has enabled attacking Serbs to essentially win their war against an unprepared Bosnian Muslim government.

Continued bitter fighting over enclaves such as Gorazde belies the fact that Bosnian Serbs now control some 70 percent of the country and have achieved virtually all their military goals.

A broader mandate for NATO airstrikes may yet force Serbs back from the center of Gorazde and provide a measure of security for other United Nations designated safe areas such as Tuzla. But these cities would remain islands of Muslim refugees afloat in a sea of hostile Serb territory.

For months the West has been trying only to make the end of the war as palatable as possible. There is little talk in Washington, London, or the United Nations about rolling back Serb gains.

``It's not just a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. It's one of the great moral tragedies of our time,'' said a bitter House majority whip, Rep. David Bonior (D) of Michigan, on April 19.

At this writing, Bosnian Serbs were continuing to rain shells on the essentially defenseless Gorazde core. By noon local time on April 20, over 200 shells had landed, according to relief workers trapped in the town.

Meanwhile, NATO representatives met in Brussels to consider a UN request for expanded permission to call in airstrikes when necessary.

Technically, the UN up to this point has only been able to call on NATO for close air support to protect UN peacekeepers on the ground and to enforce the safe area around Sarajevo.

The proposal calls for the airstrike umbrella to be explicitly expanded to all UN safe areas - Tuzla, Bihac, Srebrenica, and Zepa, as well as Sarajevo and Gorazde. An expanded list of approved targets, including artillery and mortar sites, would presumably make Bosnian Serbs take this threat more seriously than they did the reality of last weeks's pinprick close-air support strikes near Gorazde.

US officials have also decided to press for tighter economic sanctions on the Serbian government in Belgrade.

As always with Bosnia policy, however, policymakers cautioned that European allies would have to go along before new measures could be put in place.

And it remained to be seen whether Bosnian Serb military commanders, who have gained so much by the gun, would be impressed by new a US-devised diplomatic package.

``It's clear halfway measures aren't going to bother the Bosnian Serbs,'' notes Stan Sloan, a Congressional Research Service NATO expert.

With the hundreds of billions of dollars that the US and its allies continue to spend on defense every year, there is no real lack of military power to counter the Bosnian Serb advance. There is a lack of will - or rather a continued judgment that the risks of deeper NATO involvement overweigh the gain of ending the Bosnian war.

The Clinton administration has taken much criticism for its irresolution in the Bosnian crisis as it signals a tough line one month, then talks of the need to consult with allies the next.

But the Bush administration handled the Balkans no more adroitly, with Bush officials at one point saying publicly the whole thing held no national interest for the US. European allies have continually wrung their hands about the safety of their peacekeepers on the ground, especially if the UN decided to get involved in the war.

Meanwhile, the Serbs continued to roll up gains, as they pressed their goal of conquering areas of Bosnia they claim to be historically Serb-dominated. It is widely thought that eventually Bosnian Serbs want to merge their new territory with Serbia itself to create a larger Serbian empire. In this geopolitical context, Serb pressure on Gorazde makes sense. Control of territory around the town would allow Serbs to control a major road from Belgrade to the sea.

The West has recoiled from large uses of force, no doubt in part because leaders appear to believe their voting publics would not support it.

Such a policy is rooted in fear, notes Bob Gaskin, an analyst with Business Executives for National Security.

``A policy based on fear doesn't work against people who are not afraid,'' he says.

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