NATO's Pulled Punch

WITH its airstrike against a Serb stronghold in Croatia, NATO has shown that its concern with unity doesn't render it completely immobile. Even the Russians, who so long faced NATO as their cold-war enemy, assented.

With the attack, NATO has indicated that it can take steps to fulfill commitments it has made, such as helping protect the Bosnian town of Bihac as a ``safe area'' as designated by the United Nations. This will lessen pressure - notably from the United States Congress - to have the US go it alone, as with the recent unilateral decision to stop enforcing the arms embargo against the Bosnians.

But NATO pulled its punch Monday. It is troubling that the planes swooping down on the airstrip at Ubdina, used as a staging ground for Serb attacks on Bihac, targeted not the actual warplanes or even the buildings at the airfield, but the runways, which can easily be repaired, although US Adm. Leighton Smith, NATO commander in southern Europe, estimated that the airstrip would be out of use for about a month, and said antiaircraft installations and a missile site had also been hit.

The UN reportedly was concerned about civilian casualties, but on a military airstrip? The Serbs whose missiles hit the Sarajevo city hall the same day evidently felt no such fastidiousness.

The public responses to the airstrike - from President Clinton, Senate majority leader-in-waiting Bob Dole, and others - have been generally supportive, but military experts have more privately called the strike the wrong kind of action: a symbolic hit that only teaches the adversary that airstrikes are survivable.

In the very difficult situation of the former Yugoslavia, the West, and Russia too, have a broad interest in stability and the maintenance of democracy and humane values. But no one nation or group of nations has whatever combination of perceived self-interest, geographic proximity, and altruism it would take to mobilize a full-scale military response there. A major Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia would not be just a low-cost, low-value adventure, as the US has gotten into occasionally closer to home; nor would it be another invasion of Normandy.

Under these circumstances, getting a lot of leverage from the military force that is exerted is all the more critical. Transparently symbolic use of force won't do it.

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