THE United States and its allies remain wary of deeper involvement in the Balkans crisis despite the example of concerted military effort in Somalia.
Enforcement of the declared "no fly" zone in the skies of Bosnia would be the biggest step yet in the West's campaign of warnings against Serbian military aggression. Yet the arduous process of lining up nations behind even this limited step shows how unlikely wider action might be.
At the outbreak of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia, US officials insisted publicly that what happened there did not affect US national interests and thus did not demand emergency action. Months and thousands of deaths later, the State Department reiterates that the tragedy of "ethnic cleansing" is one of dire proportions, but not something the US can do much about.
Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia and someone who knows Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic well, laid out the dilemmas bluntly in a recent TV interview. "I don't know how you deal with it unless what you're prepared to do to assure success is to put in several hundred thousand ground troops, US or whatever," he said. "I don't think the American people are prepared to accept that." (Situation in Kosovo province, Page 7.)
"What we have tried to do, the international community, is tried to find ways to at least take the edges off this problem," Eagleburger continued. "It is clear we have not succeeded."
The line the US would like to draw now is in Kosovo, an Albanian-majority region inside Serbia itself. Serb forces already have Kosovo in a stranglehold, and any terroristic crackdown or attempt at "ethnic cleansing" could take the Balkans conflict to an even higher level of violence.
A wide range of US officials, from President Bush on down, have warned Serbia to keep its hands off Kosovo. Last week, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would expect a NATO military reaction in response to such a spread of "ethnic cleansing."
The question is, would Milosevic believe such threats given the West's record in the region so far? The public disagreements on enforcing the no-fly ban have not tended to present Serbia with a forceful united front against it.
Britain is reluctant to do anything to jeopardize their peacekeeping troops already in the region. These troops were fired on again yesterday by Serbs. Further delay asked
Britain wants a delay built into any enforcement effort, to allow United Nations troops time to prepare and deliver humanitarian aid through the winter.
Yet, however limited, no-fly-zone enforcement would be a big step, argues one US Balkans expert. "We would be saying that we're actually going to take military measures which could result in an exchange of fire, and involve us essentially in taking sides," says F. Stephen Larrabee, a RAND Corporation analyst. "That is an important political signal and could create some degree of uncertainty."
The Bush administration has avoided making hard choices in the Balkans by presenting only the extreme as options, he adds.
The line has long been: Either we send in hundreds of thousands of troops, or do nothing.
No-fly-zone enforcement is the sort of intermediate step that should have been pushed long ago, Mr. Larrabee says, when it might have headed off some Serbian aggression. Europeans also divided
Of course, part of the reason the administration has acted as it has is European disunity on the Balkans crisis.
If Britain, France, Germany, and other nations closer to the problem cannot agree even on whether to lift the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnians, why should the US press forward, especially when it could strain allied relationships?
The emerging post-cold-war Pentagon view on the use of force could also stand in the way of any limited Balkans action. This view is what Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has called the "don't screw around" school of thought: If you do anything, do it massively, as with the Gulf war or the Somalia effort.
The open question is whether President-elect Clinton will try to change this attitude and press for more action when he takes office. He has talked somewhat tougher on Bosnia than President Bush has, and Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, Clinton's choice for defense secretary, has in the past pushed for a concept of more limited use of force for the US military.
"Yugoslavia in some ways accentuates a debate within the national-security community about the use of American force," says Larrabee. "There are lots of ramifications of this. It's not just about a little spat in a far away land of which we know nothing."