THE fall of a small town in East Bosnia to a savage Serb ethnic cleansing campaign represents the fall of a year-long Western policy on Bosnia. By shelling helpless Bosnian women and children, by using armed force to take territory it has no claim to, and by consistently lying to United Nations officials and breaking signed agreements, the Serb forces have shown they will not operate by any civilized standards of diplomacy.
It was obvious months ago that Serbs were using the UN Vance-Owen plan to stall, and gain land. Srebrenica makes that clear. Cyrus Vance resigned from the plan; Lord Owen now calls for airstrikes on Serb positions in Bosnia. This is change.
Srebrenica seems a lost cause. The immediate need is to get 60,000 refugees out. A cease-fire negotiated by the UN may allow this. But Western leaders must demand a clean and complete evacuation, including Bosnian men of fighting age. The Serbs, who carefully calculate Western opinion, would like to get credit for cooperating with the UN as these refugees are driven away; they should not. Their acts are criminal.
The West now has a nonpolicy in the face of an ongoing genocide. The Serb regime of Slobodan Milosevic now feels it can get away with anything; it mocks the West even while tormenting the innocent. The situation is that stark. If unchecked, the case of Srebrenica may well be repeated in the towns of Zepa, Tuzla, Gordazde - and Sarajevo.
What is desperately needed is leadership. In political terms, only President Clinton can provide this. What Mr. Clinton does in the next week is crucial for the conflict and his own foreign policy potency. He should call in Senate minority leader Bob Dole, who now calls for a NATO ultimatum on the Serbs. He should call in Sen. Joseph Biden, just back from Sarajevo. He might consult Indiana Rep. Frank McCloskey, who visited the Balkans recently. Each will argue that force must be used against the Serbs an d that this can be accomplished short of sending troops.
It is said that Clinton must face "political reality" before moving. Yet such reality is fluid. It is created by the moral arguments and strategic facts made clear by leaders. This task awaits Clinton.