IN pushing for expanded NATO authority to conduct airstrikes in Bosnia, United States officials have tacitly admitted that last week's pinprick bombing raids were little help in protecting besieged Bosnian Muslims.
The question now is, will threatening to swing a somewhat larger air power stick really deter further aggressive Bosnian Serb behavior?
President Clinton insists that it can. In his news conference announcing the new US position on Wednesday, Mr. Clinton admitted that NATO warplanes alone would be unable to prevent further Serb ground advances or silence every Serb gun. But by extending the no-shell-zone approach used in Sarajevo to five other battered Muslim towns, NATO ``can deny the Serbs the opportunity to shell safe areas with impunity,'' Clinton said.
One influential US senator added that if this slightly tougher approach is to work, the US and its allies must be ready to become tougher still.
``We have to be willing to escalate,'' said Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, in a television interview yesterday. ``Otherwise the escalation is all on the side of the Bosnian Serbs.''
At this writing, NATO allies had yet to approve the new US Bosnia proposal, which also includes stricter enforcement of economic sanctions on Serbia and a call for a ``major diplomatic initiative'' that Clinton declined to specify.
Though US officials expressed confidence that allies would follow their lead, approval is, by no means, a foregone conclusion. Britain, Canada, and Germany are thought to have reservations about an expanded air-power role. Russia, although not a NATO member, continued to object to NATO use of force against its traditional Serb allies.
``President Yeltsin believes that peaceful means haven't been exhausted,'' said Yeltsin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov.
Many analysts in Washington also continue to believe that the US' so-called ``rheostat'' use of force in Bosnia, in which it gradually turns up the pressure in an effort to coerce the political behavior of Serbs, is just the sort of thing that went wrong in Vietnam.
A number of Pentagon officials remain leery of the ability of a limited air campaign to inflict pain on Bosnian Serb forces, which have been involved in bitter, deadly fighting for two years.
The choice of targets could be a crucial determinant of any new policy's success. As the experience of the airstrikes at Gorazde showed, any attempt to bomb armor or other small units in bad weather and rough terrain remains difficult, even with modern aircraft and ``smart'' weapons.
The best way to inflict damage on the Bosnian Serbs, say analysts, would be to strike their lines of supply - depots, assembly points, and perhaps roads and bridges leading back to their patron Serbia.
Clinton declined to specify whether a plan to hit such strategic targets is part of his new approach. NATO allies could yet demand changes in the target list.
But Defense Secretary William Perry, on a trip to the Far East, said in Seoul that ammunition dumps and other behind-the-lines areas would indeed be held at risk under the administration's new plan.
If such bombing took place, NATO would have taken a big step toward larger involvement in the Bosnia conflict. It might lead to withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers and a more overt pro-Muslim NATO stance.
Secretary Perry said the administration believes that guaranteeing the status of safe havens by explicitly threatening air raids will help push Serbs and Muslims toward a cease-fire accord. If not, ``we will have to consider other actions,'' he said.