West on Edge After the Shelling in Sarajevo

In Washington: Military options against Serbs not favored despite pressure

TWO years ago, in concert with other Western leaders at an economic summit, President Bush warned Bosnian Serbs that their shelling of Sarajevo must stop.

Hundreds of artillery rounds later, in August of last year, White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers threatened Serbs that ``the clock is ticking.''

Three days after that, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said ominously ``the military operation is ready.''

Today, six months further down the road, the United States and the West are still making threats while agonizing over what to do to end the carnage in the Balkans.

Last weekend's tragic mortar attack on a Sarajevo square may have increased pressure for action from some quarters, but for many US officials the reasons for caution remain unchanged.

Much of the Pentagon, in particular, believes that airstrikes in the Balkans would do little to change the overall political situation in Bosnia. Blowing up a few Serb mortars might relieve some Western frustration, in this view, but absent deployment of large numbers of Western ground troops it will make little peace in the volatile region.

As of this writing, NATO was huddling to discuss responses to the latest Bosnian outrage. Airstrikes were clearly possible, but President Clinton was choosing his words carefully, saying that some allies had reasons for opposing bombing. ``The appropriate thing now is to see if this horrible incident can be the spur to a vigorous effort to a peace agreement,'' Mr. Clinton said.

While Bosnia has remained a front-page problem in Europe, its prominence in the US has been declining in recent months. Partly this is the result of compassion fatigue, sheer numbness induced by the steady parade of horrible incidents. Partly it is the result of an attempt by the administration to avoid an issue it sees as tarnishing its foreign policy record.

In their early months Clinton officials vigorously pressed allies for such actions as the lifting of the arms embargo for besieged Bosnian Muslims. Finding that allies were deeply split on the issue, Clinton officials have since declined to take a leading role in attempting to forge a consensus on taking further steps to stop the violence.

Consider the US policymakers' plight: Domestic critics, such as Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and a number of disgusted midlevel State Department officials, want the US to help the embattled Muslims fight harder by sending them arms and perhaps supporting them with airstrikes.

Some European critics, such as France, want the US to use its leadership to make the Muslims stop fighting and agree to a diplomatic solution that would carve up Bosnia among the warring parties.

Meanwhile, the British and the Canadians still oppose airstrikes on the grounds that UN peacekeepers in Bosnia would be endangered. Russia, Serbia's lone big-power friend, opposes airstrikes on principle. US military officials look back at Somalia, then look ahead to Bosnia and see their lives once again being put on the line for an unclear political purpose.

``If airstrikes are Act I of a new melodrama, what is Act II? What is Act III? What is the conclusion?'' warned new Defense Secretary William Perry over the weekend.

Continuing mortar fatalities in Sarajevo have not changed these basic US assessments. They have, however, embarrassed big powers anew, and that alone could be enough to prompt a Western response.

If nothing else, the renewed debate may force the US to swing to France's position and take a leadership role in wresting diplomatic talks to a conclusion.

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