WHILE the West routinely condemns Serbian aggression, it has not come to grips with Belgrade's systematic strategy for destabilizing and partitioning its neighbors. The current United Nations-meditated peace plan, which legitimizes the gains of aggression, fits this pattern of failure. To achieve a just peace, President Clinton must put top priority on creating a balance of power between the victims of aggression and its perpetrators before trying to negotiate a deal.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has followed a clear strategy: Fight one war at a time. Destabilize neighbors by arming nationalists among its Serbian minority. Back those guerrillas with supplies and the forces of the former Yugoslav Army and air force. Exploit peace talks as a cover for "ethnic cleansing" and to ward off any Western military response. Consent to a peace plan in order to consolidate gains once key Serbian objectives have been achieved. Having done this, Serbs move to the next targe t.
With the flawed peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina developed by international mediators Cyrus Vance and David Owen, the West is again playing into President Milosevic's hands. Lord Owen has conceded the plan will help consolidate Serbian military gains by saying it simply "reflects reality on the ground." It also lacks any enforcement mechanism to compel Serb forces to comply.
If implemented, the Vance-Owen plan will simply replay the failed 1992 UN Vance Plan for Croatia. In that plan, peacekeepers in contested areas of Croatia actually helped Serbian forces. They blocked Croats, and allowed Serbs to complete the ethnic cleansing and colonization of Serb areas in Bosnia. Not surprisingly, Serbian leaders in Bosnia openly say that the 10 ethnic enclaves created under the Vance-Owen plan would be only a "detour" on the road to annexation by Serbia. They don't intend to keep it in the plan.
The Vance-Owen plan would almost certainly become a prelude to a new ethnic-cleansing drive by Serbia against the Albanian majority in Kosovo or the destabilization of Macedonia. Those actions both would kill thousands of innocent people and create more than a million new refugees and could even escalate into a regional war involving Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey.
To defeat Serbia's strategy, the West must adopt a comprehensive policy to halt Serb aggression:
* Tighten sanctions against Yugoslavia. Economic hard times may turn Serbs against Milosevic. We should interdict imports - especially oil - reaching Serbia via the Black Sea and the Danube River.
* Compel an immediate end to Serb seiges. We should insist that Serb heavy weapons in Bosnia be placed under UN control and that blockades of Bosnian cities be lifted. If Serb forces balk, we should not only enforce the UN-imposed no-fly zone and bomb Serbian ground positions in Bosnia, but also conduct air strikes against military bases, arms depots, ammunition factories, and fuel refineries in Serbia.
* Lift the arms embargo selectively. Serbia's overwhelming military advantage results from its taking-over of the former Yugoslav Army - as well as its control of virtually all of Yugoslavia's arms industry. No settlement will stick until a balance of power exists on the ground, thus the UN arms embargo should be waived for Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia so they can acquire defensive weapons.
* Permit Croatian forces to reclaim Serb-held areas. In light of Serbian defiance of its ceasefire and disarmament provisions, the Vance plan in Croatia has failed. Consequently, we should support, not hinder, any future efforts by Zagreb to reimpose its political authority over Serb-occupied areas within Croatia's borders.
* Deploy peacekeepers in Kosovo and Macedonia. The time to send peacekeeping forces is before, not after, conflict breaks out. Mr. Clinton should follow up on President Bush's warnings to Serbia about attempting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by seeking UN authorization to send peacekeepers to Kosovo and Macedonia and by preparing to react with air strikes against Serbia if those forces are challenged.
The West must play, not the lead role, but a key supporting role in reversing Serbian aggression by strengthening the Bosnian government and Serbia's neighbors. If necessary, limited air strikes should be considered. But it need not, and should not, deploy major ground combat forces.
All would prefer that Europe handle this problem. Unfortunately, European leadership seems now a contradiction in terms. Clinton said in his inaugural address that the US must act forcefully if aggressors defied the "will and conscience" of the international community. The US must now answer the call to lead.