THE collapse of the Bosnian Muslim town of Gorazde glaringly reveals the limits of last week's restricted use of NATO force in support of United Nations peacekeeping efforts for the battered Balkans enclave.
A pair of bombing runs by NATO aircraft neither intimidated Bosnian Serbs into stopping their advance on Gorazde nor completely protected UN military advisers in the area from suffering casualties. Bosnian Serb forces, in effect, called the UN's bluff -
and found that the West had no intention of intensifying airstrikes to stop them.
The UN's inconclusive use of force may embitter Bosnian Muslims as well as damage the credibility of peacekeeping efforts in the region, according to critics.
``If we had planned it, I do not see how we could have gotten into a worse mess than we are now in,'' said Lawrence Eagleburger, briefly President Bush's secretary of state, in a television interview Sunday.
``The Serbs are trumping every ace that the United Nations and we put forward,'' Mr. Eagleburger said.
As of this writing, attacking Serb forces had not overrun the center of Gorazde proper. But Muslim defensive lines had collapsed, and yesterday morning shells were falling at random into the town, said a UN spokesman, despite its putative status as a UN-protected safe haven. At least one shell hit the roof of a hospital. The UN commander for Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, said with refugees swelling Gorazde's population to 65,000 ``a major humanitarian catastrophe'' loomed.
Calling the situation in the besieged town of Gorazde ``grim and uncertain,'' President Clinton yesterday renewed his call for lifting an international arms embargo so Bosnian Muslims can better defend themselves. He has said that under certain conditions the United States would be willing to consider a European proposal for a phased lifting of economic sanctions against Serbia - as a reward for reining in Bosnian Serbs. But continued Serb aggression around Gorazde and elsewhere precludes such discussions now, Mr. Clinton said.
The Gorazde morass is likely to have continued political reverberations in Washington. For one thing, it could strain US-Russian relations, which are already somewhat testy.
Russia is Serbia's traditional ally. In Bosnia, Moscow has taken advantage of that position to become the UN power with the most leverage over Serb actions. This has worked to good effect in such situations as the continued cease-fire around Sarajevo. Russia clearly did not want Bosnian Serbs to take Gorazde and has been pushing a negotiated solution. But the US may wonder how hard Moscow tried to head off the Bosnian Serb offensive.
Gorazde's agony is also likely to intensify the debate in Washington about the wisdom of involving US forces in UN-controlled peacekeeping efforts. Unfairly or not, many lawmakers blame US casualties in Somalia on a UN-inspired hunt for warlord Muhammed Aideed. UN commanders' use of small air raids in Bosnia could only feed the perception that international organizations cannot be trusted with the lives of US service personnel.
Many Pentagon officials have long warned against anything less than decisive use of US military force. They have also cautioned that air power in Bosnia might not inflict painful damage on dispersed Serb forces hidden in mountainous terrain. This prediction was confirmed in Gorazde, where bad weather and hard-to-see targets meant that NATO pilots had to make multiple passes before they could even locate their assigned targets. Aircraft attacking in this manner lose their element of surprise - a crucial cause of Saturday's downing of a British Harrier jet by a Bosnian Serb surface-to-air missile.