WASHINGTON officials are trying hard to counter the impression that they are sliding down a slippery slope towards greater military involvement in the Balkans in the wake of NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets near Gorazde.
United States bombs and aircraft gunfire are intended to prod diplomacy, said Marine Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a briefing for reporters on April 11. They don't indicate that the US and its NATO allies are entering the war on the side of the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government.
``Clearly the intent is to get the warring parties back to the table. Military might is not going to solve this problem,'' General Sheehan said.
But uncertainty about the Bosnian Serb reaction to being struck for the first time by the West has many in Washington worried that further bombing raids lie ahead, no matter what the White House intends. And US relations with Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, have already suffered air-raid after-effects.
The Russian Duma (parliament) passed a resolution on April 12 condemning what it called NATO's ``unsanctioned use of force.'' Claiming they had not been informed of the Gorazde bombings in advance, Moscow officials said they believed the West was trying to send them a message as well as the Serbs.
The bombings were ``a slap at Russia's prestige,'' said Vice Premier Sergei Shakrai, and will only bolster the position of extreme Russian nationalists.
The US believes the Russian protests are at least partly aimed at their own domestic political audience and that Russian diplomats will continue to work with NATO to try and bring the Serbs to the negotiating table. Russia's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Vitaly Churkin, was set on April 12 to meet with his US counterpart Charles Redman and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in an effort to defuse the volatile Goradze situation.
Russia's protests that it was not informed in advance of NATO's intent to take action are strange, said US officials, considering that a Russian officer is on the staff of the UN force commander, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, who requested the strikes in the first place.
``The Russians were there in Sarajevo and understood what was happening - or at least they had an opportunity to understand what was happening,'' said Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a briefing for reporters on April 11.
AS of this writing the Bosnian Serb reaction to two waves of air strikes was not clear. Through mid-day April 12 Gorazde was relatively quiet, with the only shelling reported by UN observers coming unprovoked from the town's Bosnian Muslim defenders.
Ominously, after the first attack by F-16s on April 10, Bosnian Serb forces began firing more directly at the position of UN military observers in Gorazde. That is what made the second strike April 11 morning by F/A-18s necessary, said Pentagon officials.
Bad weather and the mountainous terrain around Gorazde made it difficult for the planes involved in both attacks to locate targets, said the Pentagon. Such constraints, coupled with the political limits of US and NATO involvement, mean that it is unlikely airpower alone could stop the Bosnian Serb advance if it is determined.
``You could make the case that the Serbs have the military power to, over time, overwhelm Gorazde,'' said Adm. Michael Cramer, director of intelligence for the Joint Staff.
Some analysts worry that the use of limited force to send a political message to the Serbs is an approach that might draw the US into the Balkans morass deeper than it intends.
Not using force in a massive, decisive way has the paradoxical effect of leaving the initiative with one's adversary, notes Loren Thompson, deputy director of security studies at Georgetown University.
``Now it is the Serbian response that will determine whether our involvement grows,'' notes Mr. Thompson.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Serbs are not ``unitary actors'' in this case, says Thompson.
Command and control of the Bosnian Serb military is very decentralized, with local commanders exercising considerable authority. The Bosnian Serb military leadership is more hardline than its political counterpart - and both must contend with the wishes of Serbia itself and its leader, Slobodan Milosevic.
Meanwhile, US officials made clear that if Serb forces attack any of five other Muslim enclaves in Bosnia, they might well face air strikes similar to those used around Goradze. At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the US and its allies were reportedly already weighing tougher measures for Goradze itself, including an ultimatum for Bosnian Serbs to pull back into the surrounding countryside or face further bombs.