THE Yugoslav catastrophe poses for the United States a difficult political and ethical dilemma. It is both whether, and how, to respond to the atrocities - the slaughter of innocent civilians, destruction of historic cities, "ethnic cleansing," expulsion of hundreds of thousands from their ancestral hearths, aggression across recognized borders, and major destabilization of the Balkans.
There is an uneasy but strenuous debate now between the White House, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, Congress, and media. Last year the prevailing view was that Yugoslavia's former geopolitical, strategic importance is moot. That, with the demise of the cold war, the Balkans became a "low-interest-quotient problem" for the US. But, as the war escalated and spread - and now threatens Kosovo, Sandzak, and Macedonia - that view itself is becoming moot. The US and the major European po wers are ratcheting up their warnings and taking steps against Serbia's depredations.
Here are two of the current assumptions in the policy whirl over Yugoslavia and its new successor states, that need scrutiny:
First, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney is widely quoted as having stated that the Balkan conflict is "an internal civil war." This is quite untrue. When the individual Yugoslav republics were recognized by the international community (the US included) as independent states, and admitted into the United Nations, any aggression against those states became a war between sovereign states.
The US government, for example, asks Serbia to cease its "aggression" against Bosnia. Serbia's aggression is a "cross border operation," not an internal civil war, as Mr. Cheney states.
Second, it is said that effective peacekeeping efforts - UN, US, or European - can only come when Yugoslavs tire of killing each other. That is fine, except it assumes that the intra-Yugoslav violence will peter out. This model is wrong - particularly when viewed as a wider Balkan crisis. One might say, if you liked Croatia and Bosnia, you will love a future war in Kosovo, and then Macedonia.
Both of the above-mentioned notions are bona fide in the abstract. They are based on an underlying wish that somehow this "internal thing" could stay internal; that those crazy Yugoslav gnats could be waved away; that one can walk away from this mess.
But I fear the Yugoslav ethnic Chernobyl won't burn out by itself. Its fallout may not be contained. To stop a chain reaction will require a steady international effort, with some sacrifices.
I recently asked National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft at what point, if any, US national interest would be involved in Bosnia. Should a line be drawn, I wondered. He said the war is already out of control, and that if it extends to Kosovo and involves Albanians and sweeps in Muslim interests and then moves to Macedonia, it would involve the Atlantic community's interest.
Such answers are understandable. They are careful and cautious. It is a political year. No foreigner can breezily urge mothers and fathers to send their sons and daughters to fight and get shot overseas.
But at the same time, is the US condemned to never respond in time, but always be late - always when the odds are so much worse, requiring more sacrifice and money?
The spectre of Vietnam and Lebanon looms. Who wants to fight in the mountains of Yugoslavia - so different from the sands of Kuwait and Iraq?
The Pentagon calls Yugoslavia a potential "quagmire." I suggest a "quagmire" is less possible. The performance of the Yugoslav-Serbian army units, and assorted lumpen bands, show they are mostly demoralized, incompetent, dissolute forces - capable only of shelling cities from a safe distance and terrorizing unarmed civilians. I suspect the first strike by a serious international force would cause them to unravel. There would be little prospect for a guerrilla war.
Those who, on the strength of the erstwhile Yugoslav partisan warfare tradition, assume the opposite, are probably missing the decay and the demoralization that shot those "armies" through and through. Avoiding a static view, one should allow that a serious sustained international military involvement and action would produce a sea change in the political atmosphere and public mood. The populations would have even less heart to follow self-defeating ethnic aggressions.
The US and the West can wean many Serbs and Croats away from their chauvinist programs. A ringing statement of the West's "Peace Principles and Aims" would help. Points might include:
* In the eyes of the West all Yugoslav peoples are equally deserving. None is a better friend of the West than others.
* The legitimate rights and aspirations of all Yugoslav peoples and ethnic groups will be equally upheld and respected. Minority rights must be preserved.
* All borders of Yugoslav states must be respected and are inviolable; no Yugoslav people or state can claim any right that all its members must live in one state; all ethnic groups and minorities will have their rights and autonomies internationally guaranteed and protected.
* The territorial integrity of Bosnia and of Croatia must and will be restored, and the large Serbian populations in both, as well as the Albanians of Kosovo, will have their political and cultural autonomies internationally guaranteed.
* With peace reestablished, the West can help the postwar reconstruction of the war-torn countries. Independent Yugoslav states can integrate in the European Community. They can reconnect their traditional ties in trade, transport, and energy.
So many in the Balkans are willing and ready to do this.