WITH the apparent Serb retreat from Sarajevo, it appears that NATO and Washington may have averted a major confrontation with ruthless Serb forces - for the time being. Nonetheless, if the persistent Serbian aggression of the past 22 months is any indication, the calm may be shortlived. Having avoided NATO airstrikes for now, Serb forces have lived to fight another day. Not only may Serbs deploy their weapons to other Bosnian battle sites; it is not inconceivable that in the coming weeks we may witness a return of these forces to the mountains surrounding Sarajevo in yet another bid to drive Bosnian Muslims into the ground.
Should this occur, NATO and Washington will face their most important decision since Ronald Reagan's 1983 deployment of Euro-missiles altered the strategic balance of Europe. With Serb forces again strangling Sarajevo, NATO and Washington will be forced to revisit the question that has troubled them all along: whether airstrikes against these forces will help end the slaughter the Serbs have perpetrated against innocent civilians, thus signaling that Washington still concerns itself with the plight of fellow men and women.
The decision is complicated not because there is any doubt about who is responsible for the atrocities in this region (Serb forces), or even whether airstrikes are warranted (they are). The issue is complicated for one reason: Can airstrikes alone force Serb restraint?
Perhaps Serb forces will see the light and not re-engage Bosnian targets - thus saving the White House from this question. The apparent (though controversial) influence of Moscow in forcing Serbian compliance may prove helpful. But Washington should not count on this. Rather, it should prepare now for the worst - the need for a decisive military response.
Contemplating such a response, the Clinton administration would be wise to heed lessons from the Bush administration. Admittedly, the Balkan crisis began developing during the last year of George Bush's presidency. Whether due to coming elections, a lack of information on the extent of Serb crimes, or other foreign policy distractions, President Bush never confronted the Serbs. This perhaps gave momentum to Serb aggression.
Yet in Panama and in Kuwait, Bush demonstrated that there are several doctrines that, once hostilities commence, enhance dramatically the chance for military and political success:
* Once a decision to use military force is made, do not employ it simply for symbolic purposes; employ all force needed to achieve the mission's objectives. Before Bush, politicians believed there was less downside political risk to the use of limited force instead of more extensive military involvement. This has proved untrue. To the American people, as Vietnam proved, war is war. If war is declared, Americans want two things: a means to ending the hostilities, and military success.
This means employing all the resources needed to ensure speedy victory. In Panama, Bush mobilized 14,000 troops (along with the 12,000 already there); in Kuwait, he organized the largest mobilization of United States forces since World War II - over 500,000.
To be sure, such a commitment is not likely in an attack against the Serbs, where the objective is not defeating a standing army, but encouraging negotiations. Nonetheless, the point needs remembering: Once the decision to bomb Serb targets is made, there is no political benefit to restraint except that, of course, civilian life should not be recklessly endangered.
* Define to the American people clearly why such an attack is needed, and what we hope to achieve. After Bush spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater announced on Jan. 16, 1991, that ``the liberation of Kuwait'' had begun, Bush immediately took to the television airwaves to define three things to the American people: the reason for the military action, the objectives of the military action, and why inaction was an unacceptable alternative.
This open and honest discourse with the public lent more credibility to American involvement and enhanced the understanding of and support for the mission.
* Prepare the nation for US casualties. If America is fortunate, an attack on Serb military targets may be carried out without American casualties. Nonetheless, as a commander in chief defines a military undertaking, it is important that the risks of such a mission be accepted by the American people. In his Dec. 20, 1989, address, announcing the commitment of American forces to Panama, Bush explained that such a decision was a studied one, but not without risk.
``No president takes such action lightly,'' he told the American people. This helped prepare Americans for war, and permitted Bush to maintain support for the mission's objectives - even as some casualties were inflicted.
* Along with a military offensive, employ a diplomatic offensive. Before, during, and after the war with Iraq, the White House worked tirelessly to present a united international front against Baghdad. This included lobbying for votes against Iraqi aggression in the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, diplomatic cooperation with foreign states, and joint statements against Iraqi aggression by Washington and Moscow. This enhanced the perceived moral acceptability of Operation Desert Storm.
Granted, in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, Bosnia has been the subject of much diplomatic posturing, and perhaps too little action. Yet if airstrikes are launched, it will be important for Washington to utilize diplomacy in mustering international backing.
* Prevail. This may be the easiest and most obvious advice, but it is the most important. For any military mission to enjoy popular support, there must be a perception that it is working. The lack of support for American military engagement in Southeast Asia was not because the American people did not subscribe to Richard Nixon's domino theory; most did. Rather, Vietnam lost support because Americans did not see victory in sight, and were not prepared to pay a seemingly infinite price for dubious results.
For the Clinton administration to enjoy popular support for military attacks against Serb aggressors, the same lesson applies: America must prevail. If there is too much doubt about that, the first shot should not be fired. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.