BY sending US Secretary of State Warren Christopher abroad with a military action plan on Bosnia, President Clinton is showing resolve. The White House move seems serious, and it deals with the stickiest problem in Europe in a way the Bush administration never did. Pushing ahead with a strong plan to help stop a genocide and the spread of barbarism is as brave and noble as anything the president has done in his young term - coming, as it does, in the middle of a strident debate about the advisability and
effectiveness of military action, and with a tough domestic agenda to attend to. Americans should take note.
But any applause must be short. Despite the signature of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on a peace plan on Sunday in Athens, Serb forces continue to fight and kill. Serbs are active in eastern and northern Bosnia. Photos from Srebrenica of women and children with war wounds show the means the Serb units are prepared to use. The stark fact is, Bosnians - the Muslims, Serbs, and Croats who advocate a peaceful, multiethnic state - may not have more than a month or two to survive. They need immediate h elp. The air strikes Mr. Clinton reportedly proposes on Serb positions are necessary to buy time for the Bosnians to organize and defend their towns, homes, and families from the well-equipped Serbs.
A limited but sustained policy to halt a genocide in Bosnia that is destablizing Europe is not going too far. Action also would tell the Croats their own recent butchery of Bosnians won't be tolerated.
With the West at the brink of action, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic will try to stall Clinton. His actions show him to be a master manipulator. For two years his strategy has been to divide the allies and stall for time. Serbia took 40 percent of Croatia and 70 percent of Bosnia while all parties negotiated. Calculating that Europe was too materially comfortable to intervene, Mr. Milosevic oversaw the deaths of 40,000 Croatians and 130,000 Bosnians. His peace front in Athens may be intended to get th e British and French to ask Clinton for more time. Though both are accused of war crimes, Milosevic and Karadzic regularly play in the West's media game. We may see them limit the photos from Bosnia and reduce the killing.
Clearly, the threat of action has brought Milosevic to the table. But Mr. Christopher says, "We've heard this before." He adds that "deeds, not words" are needed from Belgrade. This is simple, appropriate logic. If Serbs want peace, they must take unambiguous steps now. They can roll back their forces, remove their heavy guns, and stop the killing, raping, burning, and torture. They can let Bosnians return to their homes.
Of course, "deeds, not words" applies in Western capitals, too. An ultimatum to the Serbs should be next. Milosevic wants to stall. Clinton must urge Europe along. Critics say without a clear endgame - a guaranteed success and a quick exit - allies should not intervene. Yet such neat outcomes are rare. Bosnia is not an isolated crisis in a stable world. Rather, as Christopher says, the crisis is at "the heart of Europe's future" and the US is involved for reasons of "conscience" and "strategic interest."
It is right to link moral and strategic aims. Responding to a systematic genocide is not just a policy option. It can shape the character of our times much as the Berlin Airlift or the Marshall Plan did in the postwar years. Tolerance, democracy, and civility are based on actions taken.
Critics worry that action in Bosnia will end in a Vietnam-like "quagmire." Negative outcomes must be weighed. However, the main quagmire argument derives from the noble fight of Tito's partisans against the Nazis. The cases, however, are very different. Tito's partisans were a liberating army. Bosnian Serbs are a less motivated renegade army. Partisans had local support. Bosnian Serbs are the enemy of local towns. Tito's forces were heavily supplied and advised by the Allies. Bosnian Serbs are not.
Air strikes giving Bosnians time to arm won't require ground troops. Western troops will be needed if "safe havens" are established. Safe havens (such as Kurds had in Iraq after the Gulf war) are desirable and could be stirring symbols of Western resolve.
Before acting, the US must make it clear it does not oppose the Serb people, but extremist leaders and acts of atrocity. Serbs have a deservedly proud memory of aligning with the Allies. They must be urged to do so again for the sake of their own future as well as that of the West.