PRESIDENT Clinton publicly turned a cold shoulder to Bosnian President Alija Itzetbegovic last week, ruling out military intervention against Serbian war criminals he and Secretary of State Warren Christopher had threatened just one week earlier. Another opportunity lost. Another waffle. Another dishonorable and dangerous choice.
Mr. Clinton is on a collision course with the Bosnian ``quagmire'' he has rightly sought to avoid. The foreign-policy specialists in the White House gave up on Bosnia in February, when Mr. Christopher made his first and only speech laying out the administration's policy on the crisis. Though it was not quite understood at the time, Christopher accepted that the genocide and ethnic cleansing, carried out by Bosnian Serbs under the skillful direction of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic, had worked.
We accepted a Serb victory. Then we threw the ``full weight'' of United States diplomacy, as Christopher put it, behind the shameful Vance-Owen negotiations and ruled out US military intervention. Since then, our policy has not changed. Only our rhetoric has changed - often on a daily basis, tailored to put a spin on the ugly events on the ground. The Vance-Owen plan was discarded, only to be replaced by the Milosevic/Tudjman partition plan. US support for that negotiating process, based entirely on the demands of war criminals, has remained steadfast.
Even our tough rhetorical support when the Bosnians requested an additional 4 percent of their own territory earlier this month leaves unaltered our basic support of the Milosevic-Owen ultimatum: Sign - or else! Clinton made this clear to Mr. Izetbegovic in Washington.
If the Bosnians succumb to our pressure and agree to one of the partition plans on the table in Geneva, Congress faces a tough decision: whether to order young American men and women to help implement such an agreement.
If we send troops, American soldiers will die protecting Serbian war criminals and their newly acquired territory.
The agreement will not end the bloodshed and genocide in Bosnia. It will prolong it. The Serbs will complete the genocide in their ``republic'' while the Croats will ethnically cleanse the land they claim in Bosnia. Muslims, Jews, and mixed families will be left to the tiny, helpless rump Bosnian state that remains. Fighting will continue. More refugees will result. And we will find matters to be too messy to implement the accord.
The next move is easy to see. Serbs and Croats return to a fight in Krajina, a crucial third of Croatian territory that Serbs occupy. The Serbs begin a genocide of Albanians in Kosovo, which, unlike Bosnia, is recognized as Serb territory. Neighboring Macedonia - where the US has 300 troops, despite the fact that we do not have diplomatic relations - will be drawn into the next Balkan bonfire. Greece and Bulgaria will not be able to resist the temptation to intervene, and Greece is a NATO country. The cost of US intervention at that point will be staggering.
The other option is not to send troops. Instead we tell the Bosnians that we were not serious when we assured them we would help implement any peace settlement they signed. During last week's meeting, Clinton said as much to Izetbegovic. The tiny, indefensible, unviable Bosnian state - a pathetic archipelago in the vast oceans of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia - will be doomed. The only thing that would prevent Bosnia's collapse would be an enormous, permanent, Berlin-airlift-like military and economic defense. Not very likely, perhaps. But whatever happened to our principles?
If the Bosnians continue their lonely battle against extermination as a people and a state, we face a less distasteful choice. We either continue to support the Serb-Croat partition ultimatum, or we can choose what I consider is the side of justice and humanity: We can help the Bosnian government defend itself. This would mean reconvening negotiations based on Bosnian demands and needs, not those of the aggressors.
It is not too late. Christopher must go to the United Nations Security Council and demand that the Bosnians be allowed to defend themselves, as provided for in the UN Charter. If Britain and France balk, citing the risk to their troops already in Bosnia as part of the relief effort, we should tell them they are free to go home if they will not defend themselves.
Next we should inform UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that we will implement already agreed-to UN resolutions by bombing the Serbs who stand in the way of humanitarian assistance, peace, and stability. We can also follow through on threats to bomb Serb supply lines, storage depots, bridges, and the artillery emplacements that shell helpless women and children.
A logical next step is to call for new negotiations, under UN and Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe auspices. (Current European Community negotiators have not done well.) One of the two mediators should be a high-ranking American diplomat.
The new talks should address the Balkan crisis as a whole: Croatia and the Krajina Serbs, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
Only through relatively radical means will the trade-offs necessary for a realistic, sensible agreement be possible. Consider: Serbs in Krajina would get autonomy. So would Albanians in Kosovo. Serbs and Croats in Bosnia also get autonomy, but in a viable, unitary state with a central government and intact territory.
Clinton's alternative is sending troops into a Bosnian quagmire - from which we can only escape bloodied and humiliated.