NATO, Balkanized

THE Clinton administration's decision to fall in behind its NATO allies, and back off pressing for strong military action against the Bosnian Serbs surrounding the town of Bihac, nominally a United Nations ``safe area,'' is gravely disappointing.

But the momentum for airstrikes, delayed because of divisions within the dual command structure of NATO and the UN, has evidently passed. Those disagreements were essentially outward manifestations of the differing views within the Alliance of the war in Bosnia. Europeans have seen it as a regional squabble to be contained lest it widen; the Americans - or some Americans - have seen it as a genocide in progress, which must be stopped if the West is to honor the lessons of history.

The danger in seeking a cease-fire and ``peace talks'' - the latest tack taken by a sorely strained NATO - is that absent serious damage to their warmaking capacity, the Bosnian Serbs will get the message that peace talks are the reward for aggression.

Americans, notably Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, soon to be Senate majority leader, have denounced European NATO members for their failure to act. (He will also soon be trying to keep George Bush from being the last World War II veteran to inhabit the White House.)

Europeans counter that, without troops on the ground, as the British and the French have, the US has little standing to complain.

The US opted out of the UN peacekeeping force partly for reasons of domestic politics and partly out of concern that the mission was simply an effort to appear to be doing something and make the problem go away. Thus the American action reflected both isolationism and moral idealism.

Would an American presence have made a difference in the UN operation, with its narrowly drawn mandate and its minimalist staffing? Nowadays, leaders want wars fought and peaces kept not only without casualties but without soldiers.

Meanwhile, President Clinton has been conspicuous by his silence. As has been argued before in these columns, he needs to develop and articulate a coherent vision for American leadership in the world, including the use of force. European allies will welcome such leadership from the US.

That the Republicans will control Congress will constrain Mr. Clinton somewhat in this process. The silver lining here is that the bipartisan tradition can be invoked - and will make for ultimately sturdier foreign policy.

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