Doing What's Right in Bosnia

THIS week, there are tiny signs that the debilitating tension between ``doing the right thing'' in Bosnia and the ``realpolitik'' option of kowtowing to the ethnic Serb bully-boys might have a chance of breaking - in favor of ``doing the right thing.'' The signs:

1. The legitimate national army of Bosnia-Herzegovina has finally been able to regain some of the land usurped from it over the past 30 months by the brutal insurgents.

2. The International Tribunal that the UN set up to prosecute perpetrators of atrocities in Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia opened for business in The Hague.

These glimmers of ``the right thing'' give hope that the relevant world leaders might finally reconsider a policy that has resembled Neville Chamberlain's appeasement more than concern for international law or humanitarian values.

These world leaders include Britain's John Major, France's Francois Mitterrand, and Germany's Helmut Kohl. But President Clinton (like President Bush before him) also bears some responsibility. At least the French and British have soldiers on the ground in the dangerous mountain passes of Bosnia and Croatia, desperately trying to bring food and winter fuel into besieged communities, while the United States government has assiduously kept its troops out of harm's way.

The problem is that continuing humanitarian assistance while no real diplomatic progress exists may only postpone, or even prolong, the human suffering. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata has warned, ``In such situations there is a risk that humanitarian action could become a camouflage for political inaction.''

Yes, the moral issues are tricky. But by taking the legitimate step of trying to regain its own land, the internationally recognized government of Bosnia-Herzegovina may be able to jog some of the leaders of today's world system into doing the right thing.

Initially, that would involve a complete reconsideration of the policy that I call appeasement of the Serb insurgents. The insurgents and the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina are neither politically nor morally equivalent. Right now, the calculus seems refreshingly clear: Helping the Bosnian government to win reasonable objectives looks like not only the right but also - on the broad canvas of world history - the wise thing to do.

There will be challenges, of course. Keeping the Russians on board a policy that tames their traditional Serbian allies is only one of them. More difficult: trying to figure out who will lead an effective policy toward Bosnia. One of Clinton's earliest forays into diplomacy sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher into an embarrassing deferment of leadership on this issue to the (extremely puzzled) Europeans. No one - not Mr. Christopher, not the Europeans, not United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali - looks eager to take the lead now. Only our ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, has shown any gumption on Bosnia, but it does not look as though she's about to take over the reins of the nation's diplomacy.

In the end, President Clinton will have to exercise leadership if anything - or, more precisely, the right thing - is to be done. It won't be easy. The military and diplomatic challenges of ``force insertion'' into Haiti are like kindergarten compared with what will be needed on Bosnia.

If the president doesn't pick up this ball, we and he know that the situation - the human suffering, the instability throughout southern Europe, the rot inside the Western alliance - will only get far, far worse.

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