IN Washington, sentiment is growing for heavy retaliation against Bosnian Serbs if they do not pull their tanks and artillery 12 miles back from the ravaged Muslim town of Gorazde by tomorrow's NATO-set deadline.
At press time, Bosnian Serb forces appeared to be grudgingly moving to comply with the West's ultimatum. The United Nations commander in Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, said yesterday he was ``fairly confident'' the deadline would be met.
But Serb promises for the safety of Gorazde have proved hollow before. And this time, if a confrontation develops, NATO air raids are likely to be more extensive than previous pin-prick strikes. The result could be a significant escalation of United States and allied involvement in the Balkans fighting.
Serbia, the Bosnian Serb's patron, might find itself a NATO target. Over the weekend, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, said: ``I would not have a bridge left on the Danube'' in Serbian territory if Gorazde is not relieved.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also said action should be expanded to Serbia if further airstrikes become necessary. Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas said Sunday: ``The Serbs have to understand what pain is all about. They like to inflict it, but they don't like to receive it.''
The utter failure of the twin airstrikes of two weeks ago to deter Serb aggression has led to soul-searching among Washington officials and analysts. Beyond concern for the immediate fate of the Muslim refugees in Gorazde is concern that NATO and the US have lost face with the tinhorn aggressors of the world by, in essence, bluffing a strong response and then backing down.
SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher said last week that proving NATO's credibility is one of the US national interests at stake in the Balkans. In the last few days, NATO officials have seemed almost eager for a confrontation with the Bosnian Serbs - thus, the dispute over the weekend in which the UN representative in ex-Yugoslavia turned down a NATO request for airstrikes when it seemed Bosnian Serbs were not moving away from Gorazde fast enough.
Even if they don't touch Serbia itself, further punitive action by US-led NATO forces would reportedly hit dozens of ammunition dumps, fuel sites, command bunkers, and other targets far from Gorazde.
Whether such assertiveness comes too late to help Bosnian Muslims is another question. Even if Gorazde and other safe havens are preserved as Muslim enclaves, they surely face a tough future. Marooned in a sea of hostile territory, they might become more refugee camps than viable communities, living on the sufferance of world charity rather than their own resources.
How the West's diplomats propose to finesse this issue remains to be seen.
Mr. Christopher was to meet his counterparts from Britain and France yesterday and then fly to Geneva today for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
Moscow has proposed a high-level conference on Bosnia's future involving Russia, the US, the European Union, and the UN. President Clinton has promised that soon he will put forward an unspecified diplomatic initiative aimed at ending the Bosnian fighting.
However, Russia's defense minister, Pavel Grachev, has said NATO should drop the threat of airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs, claiming it only makes matters worse.