THE first NATO ultimatum in 45 years - the first serious threat in 22 months to Serb aggression in Bosnia - may have a salutary effect and be instructive for all concerned. Initial reports indicate that the Serbs will back their heavy weapons 12 miles from Sarajevo rather than face NATO airstrikes.
The ultimatum, long overdue, comes through a new Franco-American understanding about the importance of security in Europe. This is particularly encouraging because until now, France has played Europe off of the US.
It is vital that France and the US follow through on this partnership in the coming weeks. NATO's ultimatum is a small step toward some semblance of justice in Bosnia; it must be built upon. Airstrikes that are only token, or airstrikes without a comprehensive plan, are no more effective a solution to the war than were the unfair United Nations-European Union partition plans over the past 16 months.
NATO nations had a mixed agenda in taking this step. After so many empty threats, the credibility of NATO and of Western resolve is at stake. Popular opinion in Europe, not to mention the humiliation of the French military in Bosnia, has played a role. The Serbs, who have most of what they want - 70 percent of Bosnia -
will now wait for the NATO nations to lose interest once the headlines about last weekend's marketplace massacre in Sarajevo disappear.
Nor does the ultimatum necessarily show clear resolve against Serb aggression. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali must be the one to order the first strike. As it stands, he can pass the decision down to the UN commander in Sarajevo, British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, who was installed two weeks ago because he, unlike his predecessor, Gen. Francis Briquemont, does not advocate the use of force as a means to end the wider war. There are still many ways to pass the buck.
It would be sad if the NATO ultimatum is used by the Clinton administration, which many influential Britons see as too sympathetic toward the Bosnian Muslims, to pressure Sarajevo into signing an unfair peace agreement. NATO's step should not be used as a cheap way to get rid of the problem by selling out the victims, the Bosnians themselves. President Clinton's statement Wednesday that the Serbs are ready to give back 20 percent of the land they have taken is overly optimistic. Moreover, it could signal to the Serbs that if they simply behave for a few weeks or months, the land and borders they desire and have taken through a racist policy of genocide will soon be theirs.
The NATO ultimatum does not defeat the Serbs; they keep their heavy weapons. But it can, if followed up with a concerted and justified policy of aiding the victims, begin to develop a dynamic that could lead to a settlement based more on parity.
Absent NATO help, the Bosnian crisis has become murkier. The Bosnians are more factionalized; the multiethnic ideal, at least outside Sarajevo, has been tattered. The Croats, seeing Western inaction, have 10,000 troops in Central Bosnia. The Serbs have mobilized from Belgrade to stop a possible Bosnian Muslim offensive in the spring.
Still, NATO has a legitimate cause to rally behind, part of which is stability in Europe. But perhaps Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic said it best after Saturday's gruesome attack: ``We have been fighting fascism alone for two years. It is fascism we are fighting.''