IF you were afraid of a [Western] military intervention, you can breathe easy," the voice on Bosnian Serb television told its audience this week. "President Clinton has decided to put Bosnia aside and return to domestic political issues because the European Community refused the military option."
With some voices in Europe and the United States trading sharp charges over responsibility for the failure to arrive at a united Western position on Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb statement has the virtue of getting to the point.
Underlying the Western failure is US ambiguity over taking on a foreign mission in a complex conflict, and European paralysis in the face of a war it would rather see contained than running the risk of escalation into something larger.
"The Europeans, alas, have concluded that for Bosnia it is too late," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute for Foreign Relations. "They are afraid to launch into something they wouldn't be able to control, and so they have resigned themselves" to a Serbian victory.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher's inability last week to line up European capitals behind a two-step US proposal for limited military intervention resulted in part from the fluidity of events in Bosnia during Mr. Christopher's visit. The Clinton administration proposed beginning with bombing of strategic Serb positions until the Bosnian Muslims could be armed to adequately defend themselves.
But at the root of the transatlantic dissonance are strong European concerns about where military intervention might lead. French Foreign Ministry officials speak of "avoiding an Afghanistan across the Adriatic from Italy" and "the dangers of sliding into World War III."
In addition, Europeans interpreted the US plan as options to be discussed and not as Clinton's policy - and, importantly, as options that do not even enjoy broad US public support.
"If the Americans came with a clear plan and said, `This is what must be done, follow us," the Europeans would say `yes,' " Mr. Moisi says. "But that is not what they came here with." That leaves the doubt for many Europeans that the US wants to be followed.
As one observer summarized in the Paris daily Liberation, "The war in ex-Yugoslavia is above all a European affair, and Clinton would have had trouble finding the political support to wage a war in Europe that Europe doesn't want to fight."
Yet despite longstanding European reluctance toward military steps, a window to agreement on military steps appeared to open after the self-proclaimed Bosnian "parliament" rejected the UN- and EC-brokered Vance-Owen Bosnia peace plan May 6. European leaders had been publicly very clear before Christopher arrived in their opposition to lifting the arms embargo to allow rearming the Muslims, and only slightly more open to air strikes.
British government sources say that decision, coming after Christopher's visit to London and Paris, left the British (and probably the French) without a fig leaf and feeling more or less bound to supporting air strikes.
It was at this point that the British looked for the lead from Clinton they had told Christopher they needed, the sources say.
Christopher, on the other hand, in publicly calling after the Vance-Owen rejection for "tougher measures," appears to have interpreted the Bosnian Serbs' decision as enough in and of itself to muster European support.
But without the kind of US demands for action that they felt were necessary, the Europeans by May 9 had repaired their fig leaves and regained arguments against military intervention. Serbian President and Bosnian Serb supply-man Slobodan Milosevic provided some of the cover for European foot-dragging by condemning the Bosnian Serb decision and pledging to cut off supplies. `Rift? What rift?'
European leaders continue to insist that there is no rift with the US over Bosnia. If anything, Clinton's statements this week that the US might consider assigning troops to Macedonia to prevent the conflict from spreading there, or to the Serb-Bosnian border to control the flow of military supplies, are movements toward the European point of view.
At a meeting this week, EC foreign ministers called on the US and Russia to join European troops already on the ground in Bosnia as UN peacekeeping "blue helmets." French officials say the EC request reflects a conviction that having the "big boys" on the ground would constitute a formidable restraint for further Serbian military action. Need for US troops on ground
Some observers theorize, however, that the Europeans see having US troops on the ground as the best means of foreclosing the military option. Both France and Britain have well-founded concerns about the effect military intervention might have on their troops in the former Yugoslavia. The US would think twice about dropping bombs, they believe, if their soldiers were on the ground.
French officials now say that "barring new tragic events" the policy of tough sanctions against Serbia, enforcing the UN-mandated safe areas for Muslims, and holding Mr. Milosevic to his estrangement from the Bosnian Serbs until they accept Vance-Owen, should be followed for now. And they continue to insist that all options, including pulling out the "blue helmets" to make way for military intervention, remain open.
But many here say Vance-Owen is virtually dead, and that the future for Bosnia holds more of what it has experienced over the past year.
"We're going to witness the same, unless some moral indignation pushes the Americans to come," Moisi says. "Otherwise there will just be more conquests to accept and turn away from."