IN the 11th hour of the Bosnian crisis the West has finally agreed to threaten Serb aggressors with force. After months of inaction while civilians on all sides suffered and Bosnia's Muslims begged for aid, the cruel but obvious question is: Why bother now?
For one thing, the territory held by the Bosnian government has so shrunk that NATO planners may judge it relatively easy to defend with limited Western airstrikes. But beyond this hard-headed operational factor are several larger points, according to United States officials and outside experts:
* The concern that Western airstrikes could endanger UN peacekeeping troops already on Bosnian territory may become moot. France and Britain, in particular, have worried that US bombs could expose UN peacekeepers to retaliation. But in a marathon NATO meeting Aug. 2, the US argued that these troops are already being targeted and killed.
Indeed, it was a French request for further action to protect peacekeepers that gave the US the opening to push again for wider authority to threaten the Bosnian Serbs with airpower.
* The imminent fall of Sarajevo would present the UN and the West with a massive humanitarian crisis. This catastrophe, unlike most others that have occurred lately in Bosnia-Herzegovina, would happen in full view of dozens of Western reporters and television cameras.
"We simply cannot permit the Serbs to continue to strangle Sarajevo and to commit such humanitarian gross conduct that we have all witnessed," said Secretary of State Warren Christopher Aug. 3 upon his arrival in Israel for consultations on the Middle East peace process.
The US airstrike proposal threatens the Serbs with retaliation if they continue their siege of Sarajevo or keep blocking aid from isolated pockets of civilians elsewhere in what remains of the former Yugoslav republic.
By cajoling NATO foreign ministers into approving this proposal at an emergency meeting in Brussels, US officials also hoped to strengthen the position of the Bosnian government in ongoing Geneva peace talks aimed at splitting the country between Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims (NATO backs principle of airstrikes, Page 2).
Relieved Bosnian officials welcomed the move, and said they felt the threat of air power could be very effective in aiding their cause.
"It will provide the Bosnians the ability to exert some leverage of their own within the discussions," said Bosnian ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirby. He also said that any agreement reached in Geneva would be "worthless" unless it was accompanied by US guarantees that it would be implemented.
As of this writing, however, the Geneva talks appeared to have stalled.
BOSNIAN President Alija Izetbegovic stayed away from the Aug. 3 session. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic complained bitterly about NATO's decision. International mediator Lord David Owen said that the talks may have lost their "constructive atmosphere."
If talks break down and Serbs continue their push for Sarajevo, NATO airstrikes could now be the price. Such use of force would mark not only a sharp escalation of US involvement in former Yugoslavia but also the first combat ever for forces under NATO command.
For the action to be successful, the US must keep clear strategic goals in mind, notes Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. It must resist being sucked into a larger and larger enterprise that requires more and more deployment of US military might. "It would be a mistake to take a gradualist approach," Mr. Glynn says.At the same time, it is important that the US follow through on its commitment, according to Glynn. As an example of what not to do he points to Somalia, w here what he judges an ill-conceived deployment of US force has yet to fully bring peace to the country.
One military problem is that the US has rattled swords so long that Serb aggressors have had time to prepare against the possibility of bombs. It is likely that Serb artillery, for instance, has been dispersed and camouflaged so as to make it harder to find.
"The efficacy of airstrikes will be diminished," notes Daniel Nelson, an international relations professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who was formerly an adviser to the House Democratic leadership. But Dr. Nelson argues that the threat of force is worth it anyway, though he says it should have been brandished sooner. He also urges that the US say it will seek to apprehend and try war criminals.
"We're at the point now where only the credible use of force ... will stop Serbs and Croats from gobbling up all of Bosnia and dispensing with the Muslims that are there," Nelson says.