THE double-dealing politics of the Yugoslav tragedy are now as bizarre as the pitiless war that underlies them. The stage had been set in Geneva to accept a Serbian victory. The West was to foist a "peace agreement" on the Bosnian Muslims. Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic could hardly contain his delight. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia saw himself sharing the spoils.
On the basis of this "agreement" the Western powers could, like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands of the affair.
Suddenly, perhaps in a fit of conscience, Washington cried out that the suffering in Sarajevo and other Muslim towns was intolerable. Secretary of State Warren Christopher informed other governments and United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that Mr. Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leadership must be warned of NATO air strikes if they did not stop, and of tougher measures if they torpedoed the peace negotiations.
The main point was to assert that NATO already had authority in existing Security Council resolutions to choose the time and nature of the airstrikes. Mr. Boutros-Ghali replied promptly that the decision to use air power in Bosnia-Herzegovina rested with the secretary-general and nowhere else. This has been his well-known position, and he has had the warm and public support of Britain and France.
It seems hard to imagine that Washington was looking for a showdown with them all. There was no hint of an ultimatum in the American letter, no defiant threat to go it alone.
It was also not clear what Washington's object was. There was no reference to the great issues involved: aggressive war, ethnic cleansing, and other massive crimes against humanity or international security. Indignation focused on human suffering, primarily in Sarajevo, and it seemed almost as though the Serbs were being told: Give us Sarajevo and some other embattled Muslim towns and you can keep what you've got. Nor was there any suggestion of the price the Serbians might have to pay.
How to stop Serb attacks? An occasional bomb on a Serb artillery position or a systematic campaign to destroy Serbia's aggressive force? The former would be useless at best; and there is no hint that Washington has even momentarily considered the latter.
In the political twilight zone that has now descended on the Yugoslav scene, there are still some decisive realities. Milosevic has been incredibly successful in building a greater Serbia as the Balkan hegemon. He has faced down the UN, the European Community, and the United States.
The man who should be shaking in his shoes is Croatia's Tudjman. When the Serbs went to war in 1991, they took over some 30 percent of Croatia, the regions of Krajina and Slavonia, with a sizeable Serb population. The city of Vukovar, with a Croat majority, was the first to be ethnically cleansed. Milosevic then maneuvered the UN into policing the territory as UN protected areas. The Serb militia remained in control there, colonizing emptied Croat villages while the UN, on the whole, kept Croatian forces
When the UN leaves, the Serb army will deal with Croatia. Serbian expansionism and irredentism look southward, too, to the formerly autonomous province of Kosovo. Its people are 90 percent Albanian Muslim. They are already being "ethnically cleansed" but slowly, to avoid explosion. Interference is unlikely. The Clinton administration has issued a flabby, ambiguous warning against violence. Not the thing to impress Milosevic. Beyond Kosovo, Macedonia is likely prey, but not first in line; there are too ma ny foreign, including American, observers.
Serbia's megalomania is triumphant, but it carries the seed of its own destruction. The atrocities committed against Croatians and Muslims guarantee Balkan vengeance, while the regional menace is clear to neighboring countries.
The Europeans will shed crocodile tears and still have their wish to get out of an area that many choose not to consider part of Europe. But the paralysis of will and the pull of national interests demonstrated here bode ill for any European Community. The Clinton administration, floundering in search of a policy, has not been wrong in refusing to take on what is primarily a European concern. The least Washington could have done was to clear the air - not by a spasm of conscience but by standing up six m onths ago and calling the fraud of Serb "negotiations" and the hypocrisy of Europe's "humanitarian aid" by their real name. Even today, the Western democracies, the US included, pay official lip service to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
All this is a fateful precedent for future crises. The trust and solidarity built up within the Atlantic community over the past 50 years has been seriously compromised.