Bosnia: at a Safe Distance

THE Bosnian Serb army has declared war on the United Nations, and thus on the world. What is the world's response?

That is the question before NATO and European Union defense ministers meeting tomorrow in Paris. It is the question to be taken up in Congress next week.

And it is the question that President Clinton began to address Wednesday in his speech to the Air Force Academy graduates. In it, he expanded his concept of a United States role to include use of American troops not only to aid a UN withdrawal, but to provide ''temporary'' help in ''reconfiguring and strengthening'' UN forces.

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By putting a timid toe forward to see if any support exists in Congress or among the public for greater US involvement, the president at least moves the issue in front of a wider US audience. The prospect of sending Americans into harm's way overseas will do that.

But it's far from clear that adding US ground forces -- even with a supposedly limited mission -- to the current equation in Bosnia is wise.

Americans ought to see Bosnia as an important security issue. It is a place where the concept of modern civilized behavior itself is under attack.

Unscrupulous villains have committed massive atrocities against innocents in full view of the world. They have also attacked UN forces, sent not to fight them, but only to aid civilians. The UN representatives have been humiliated and killed, and more than 300 are now being held hostage.

But politicians in both US parties recognize that, for all the hand-wringing on this side of the Atlantic, the wish to stop atrocities has not yet become a sufficient reason to involve American troops. The conflict is still too removed from everyday experience here. The news on television can be surfed away from, the radio dial turned, the newspaper page flipped by.

The Europeans ought to be able to muster more public resolve about this crisis. It's on their doorsteps. Led by the French and British, perhaps they can reinforce and reposition under a new, tougher mandate and keep some aid flowing. Perhaps the Bosnian Serbs are exhausted, out of tank fuel, and nearly ready to negotiate.

The alternative, UN withdrawal and active support for the Bosnian government, is not pretty. But it may yet be the best of the poor choices in play.

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