A SALUTARY lesson from Haiti is that criminal regimes sometimes back down when force is credibly applied. Now President Clinton must take his success and apply it to the most significant international problem of the day, which is not in Port-au-Prince, but in Sarajevo. As John Steinbruner, director of foreign- policy studies at the Brookings Institution, puts it, ``Haiti is a distraction; it is easy. Bosnia is a far bigger problem. The White House knows this European crisis is coming down the track fairly quickly. But we are still letting it drift in a direction that means trouble on a larger scale.''
In the past week some 3,000 Muslims were driven from their homes in a region of the world that for 50 years was identified with civil order and America's strategic interests. ``Ethnic cleansing'' ought to provoke profound moral outrage in decent people everywhere. But Serb President Slobodan Milosevic is betting that Western politicians lack the courage of their convictions, and that even terror and mass murder in Europe will be eagerly swept under the rug if conducted in a way that wearies and confuses the public. In conducting such a game, he is a master. If one doubts this, consider that since 1992 Mr. Milosevic's ``Greater Serbia'' policies have caused 200,000 deaths, 1.5 million refugees, the embittering of a continent, and a dangerous rise of nationalism and criminal mafias in those countries the cold war was supposed to win over.
Yet today, rather than denouncing and opposing in the strongest terms all the Milosevic regime has done and stood for, the West is seeking to make the Serb leader its ally. British, French, and Russian diplomats are trying to remove the one punishment ever exacted on Milosevic for three years of mayhem in Europe. Their effort to remove the economic embargo on Belgrade is coupled with a push not to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Some diplomats say that lifting the arms embargo so Bosnians can defend their homes and families is ``taking sides.'' Yet what is lifting sanctions on Serbs and denying Bosnia its right of self-defense if not taking sides - with the aggressor? The moral disconnect here is gaping.
Mr. Clinton must fulfill his promise to work in the United Nations Oct. 15 to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. He has the support of Congress, which may lift it unilaterally. Arming Bosnians should be accompanied by air support of Bosnian ``safe havens'' if Serbs attack.
Clinton argued last week to restore a democracy and stop atrocities. Haiti never had a democracy to restore, but Bosnia had a multiethnic civil society. Its destruction is ominous. Clinton said Sept. 19 a president must do what is right even when it is not popular, and act out of long-term interest and not by opinion polls. This seems like a good start for a hard problem.