To Untangle Bosnia ... Call Maggie

HUGE crises in Bosnia and Somalia, and a slow unraveling in Russia: We need tough, visionary thinking on how the peace of the Earth is to be preserved, and leadership to help make it happen. But from the places where we are accustomed to look for leadership - in the Security Council's "Permanent Five," or the plutocratic "Group of Seven" - what do we hear? Reactiveness, whining, paralysis, and more than a hint of national insularity.

Bosnia is clearly not a simple case of right and wrong. But to leap from that premise and say that there is nothing the international community can do is folly. To raise specters of Vietnam or Lebanon is wise - especially for the generals. But for national leaders to leap from that and say that nothing can be done? Folly again. Here are some basics:

* Words have consequences. This applies firstly to the diplomatic words spoken to the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina by all the West's major leaders: "We recognize your independence." Then, when Bosnia's Serbian and Croat neighbors poured arms, men, and supplies across Bosnia's borders, what did these leaders do? They announced a blockade on all these states that hit Bosnia (which is almost totally surrounded by its foes) worst of all.

Margaret Thatcher has wisely suggested that the major powers should take their commitment to Bosnia's independence and territorial integrity seriously, by attempting to cut the roads by which Serbs and Croats freely violate Bosnia's borders. And if this expedition takes time to muster, high-level overflights along these borders, by planes from NATO bases in nearby Italy, can speedily provide a real picture of the violation, and help build the case against the violators.

Yes, Bosnia's borders aren't perfect. True, too, that the Muslim-led government does not adequately respect the rights of its ethnic Serb and Croat citizens. But the time to talk about internal reform is after the international community has made an effective commitment to Bosnia's independence and territorial integrity.

* Meanwhile, the Bosnian people need relief. Sarajevo is the capital of a country we say we recognize. If it falls, the damage to the world's system of sovereign states will be hard to measure. Huge ripples will be felt in the (nuclear-armed) former Soviet Union, and in Muslim countries where television audiences see the same pictures of Muslim Bosnians in concentration camps that we see, with feelings of terrible anguish.

* It's great to have a debate in the West that seeks to avoid previous errors in Vietnam or Lebanon. But we shouldn't be surprised if those debates cause bellicose leaders to doubt the West's decisiveness. Western leaders should clearly state the principles they adhere to, and that they might be willing to fight for. This is not a call for Western belligerency. Rather, a plea for hardheaded vision, and for clear communication of that vision that will save a lot of misunderstandings in the uncertain years


* And, talking of vision ... Obviously, we need a clear description of the political (and not just the humanitarian) aims of any intervention. That was the major problem in Lebanon, where the mission of the American-led force despatched in September 1982 ballooned impossibly over the 14 months that followed.

But remember: An earlier American mission to Lebanon, in 1958, successfully accomplished its mission and was withdrawn with almost no casualties. Taking decisive action against well-armed Serbs today would be an undoubtedly dangerous mission. But not impossibly so.

* As always, the "who" of any intervention is important. I'm a big supporter of European integration. But the Europeans have botched this one so far. What is needed is a broad coalition uniting Western powers, Russia (to help deal with the Serbs), Turkey, and other Muslim states. That points to the United Nations Security Council as the organizing body.

And to pull the politics of all this together, in a time of American electioneering? How about Lady Thatcher? Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali: Please call her immediately!

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