WHEN American F-16s started bombing Serb militia positions near Gorazde April 10, they signaled a heightened level of United States engagement in the war in Bosnia. If such a level of engagement is sustained, can the Clinton administration finally say that it has a helpful, effective policy toward that stricken land?
Bosnian tensions might, of course, continue to mount. President Clinton and his advisers need to have some well-developed contingency plans for follow-through. Would further Serb attacks on Gorazde or other designated ``safe havens'' bring more reprisals from the US and NATO, and the possibility of escalation on the ground? For three years, the Bosnians have been in desperate need of help against aggression by ethnic separatists. Escalation of American military commitment to Bosnia might be just the boost needed by special envoy Charles Redman's fairly adroit diplomacy.
But if it is botched, this escalation could become a long-drawn-out disaster, further sapping US willpower at home and its credibility overseas, and leaving the people of Bosnia once again abandoned to a frightful fate.
One hopes that these issues were fully discussed at the crucial April 6 meeting at which national security adviser Anthony Lake worked out the new American policy of engagement in Bosnia with the secretaries of state and defense. The next day, Mr. Lake said publicly that ``neither the president nor any of his senior advisers rules out the use of air power to help stop attacks such as those against Gorazde.''
That speech came just three days after Defense Secretary William Perry had stated, also in public, that the US ``would not enter the war'' to prevent the fall of Gorazde to the Serbs. Presumably, during the April 6 meeting these differences were fully aired and a successful consensus was reached on the view articulated by Lake. But might reservations about the new policy linger in the Pentagon, which since Vietnam has been deeply wary of entanglement in punishing foreign wars?
This is not the first time the civilian and uniformed leaders of the American military have seemed more ``doveish'' toward engagement overseas than other members of the national-security establishment. In Lebanon, in 1982-83, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was much more reluctant to commit American forces than Secretary of State George Shultz or security adviser Robert MacFarlane. Both wanted to roll back presumed Soviet influence there as part of their broader cold-war campaign. But they badly misjudged local politics; 243 Marines lost their lives. Soviet influence was largely unaffected, and Mr. Weinberger's wariness was vindicated in spades.
In late 1990, as President Bush ordered plans drawn up for Operation Desert Storm, he reportedly had to overcome some initial reluctance from military chief Colin Powell. Then, the American decision to engage was largely vindicated. This time, would an American decision to engage more forcefully in Bosnia end up looking more like Lebanon or Desert Storm? If the diplomacy is sound, as well as the relationship of diplomacy to force, then the decision to engage will prove to be the right one.
These issues are, of course, extremely tricky. At stake is not just the local balance of forces in Bosnia but broad issues of international stability in the post-cold-war era, as well as the US relationship with the floundering democratic forces in Russia. If more American forces are to be put at risk in a heightened US engagement in Bosnia, the American public needs to hear its president explain the policy with credibility and conviction.
It was good, and welcome, that Mr. Perry's original outspokenness April 3 catapulted Lake into forceful advocacy of his own views on Bosnia, and into effective articulation and implementation of the resulting consensus. But what we need to see now is Mr. Clinton's own authoritative articulation of what this policy means for Americans, and his unequivocal commitment to pursuing it.
The worst thing - and Perry was right to point this out - would be to give the Bosnians indications of a level of American commitment that is not subsequently sustained. This was done in Haiti, and democrats there are paying a terrible price. The Bosnians, as well as the Haitians, deserve better of us.