WHEN he campaigned for president in 1992, Bill Clinton called for resolute action to halt the Serbian land-grab in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Three weeks after taking office, resolve melted into irresolution.
In the administration's first major policy statement on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, Secretary of State Warren Christopher ruled out the only means that most experts believe would put muscle in United States diplomacy: readiness to use force.
Referring to possible airstrikes against Serb positions in Bosnia and the arming of the Muslim-led Bosnian government, Mr. Christopher told a Washington news conference in February 1993, that ``although those two steps were considered, we concluded that they would not be constructive steps to the resolution of this problem.''
Just three months later, Christopher traveled to Europe in a failed attempt to persuade US allies to adopt the very measures the administration had just forsworn.
The flip-flop, which astonished and angered the European allies, reflected a pattern of ambivalence that has characterized the US response to the worst conflict in Europe since the end of World War II.
As a result, many analysts say, the credibility of the world's only superpower has been damaged and its relationship with its European allies thrown into disarray.
Serbia and its Bosnian proxies, meanwhile, have been left firmly in control of most of Bosnia. The anticipated fall of the northwestern Muslim enclave of Bihac will bring them a significant step closer to fulfilling - by force of arms - the age-old goal of an ethnically pure ``Greater Serbia.''
``The signals we were giving were all signals of weakness and inability to act,'' says Warren Zimmermann, the last US ambassador to the former Yugoslavia who left Belgrade in March 1992, and who has not been replaced. ``And, occasionally, when we gave a stronger signal, we did not back it up.''
Tragedy of errors
Adds Marshall Harris, one of several State Department officials who have resigned to protest US policy in the former Yugoslavia: ``It's been a tragedy of a hundred errors.''
Asked to account for the lack of a coherent US policy, analysts say the fundamental failure of both the Bush and Clinton administrations to state clearly whether the Bosnia conflict is a civil war or a war of conquest by Serbia against another independent state.
To have defined it as the latter - Serbian aggression - would have created pressures on Washington to respond as forcefully in Bosnia as it did in Kuwait, where a huge army was mobilized to liberate a nation and to protect global oil supplies jeopardized by Iraq.
Instead, Presidents Bush and Clinton took a more cautious approach, describing Bosnia as a crucible of historic ethnic and religious hatreds.
``For political reasons, neither administration has been honest about the nature of what's happening in Bosnia,'' says Mr. Harris. ``They have obscured the fact that there's a clear aggressor and a clear victim in Bosnia. We treat the Bosnian crisis as though it's a civil war with people with equal claims fighting over disputed land.''
Absent clear American economic and strategic interests in Bosnia, there was no way for either the Bush or Clinton administration to justify a massive military intervention that could have resulted in heavy US casualties abroad and widespread public opposition at home.
Just as important, without a clearly defined political objective, there was a great risk that the US would become entangled in an open-ended military operation. The point was stressed by a Pentagon still haunted by memories of Vietnam. Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, advised an all-or-nothing approach. ``It was an issue that, no matter how it was played, was a tar-baby,'' says one Washington-based foreign policy analyst.
Europe opposes US
Moreover, the US had to contend with the fierce opposition to intervention from Russia and from NATO allies, which contributed troops to a United Nations ``protection'' force in Bosnia.
More fundamentally, US diplomats and analysts concluded, Britain, France, and Russia had determined that the most expedient way to restore stability in the Balkans would be to allow the Serbs to get what they wanted.
These considerations have defined the limits of US involvement from the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis.
``The administration never really stood up to the objections of the allies and Russians and hid behind those objections,'' Mr. Zimmermann says.
``We have been perceived by Belgrade [Serbia's capital] as not being serious and being weak. That's the bottom line,'' says Paula Dobriansky, an expert on Europe who served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration.
Diplomatic analysts say there were several developments that the US could have capitalized on to justify stronger actions that might have altered the outcome of events in Bosnia.
Most notable was the siege and bombardment of Sarajevo, which commenced in April 1992. The killing of civilians in the Bosnian capital was greeted in the West with expressions of outrage but little else.
Another opportunity arose when journalists in the summer of 1992 discovered Serb-run concentration camps and other gruesome evidence of war crimes, including mass killings of civilians, committed by the Serbs as they purged hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs from the territories they conquered in Bosnia.
For months afterward, American public opinion was permissive enough that military reprisals could have been undertaken with acceptable political risks in the US. But with an election looming, President Bush's advisers were reluctant to risk the popularity he had achieved during the Gulf war by wading into another conflict with less certain results.``That was the last time the US could have taken action and had public support,'' says the Washington-based analyst.
Another lost opportunity followed Clinton's election. Instead of mounting the effort required to persuade the European allies to go along with a policy of ``lift and strike'' - exempting the Bosnian government from a 1991 UN arms embargo on all the former Yugoslav republics and backing it with NATO air power - the new president honored another campaign pledge: to focus his energies on domestic issues.
Thus, for Clinton, as for Bush, policy toward Yugoslavia ended up in the confusing nether world between the moral imperative to act forcefully and the political imperative - reinforced by the European allies and Russia - to acquiesce to Serbian aggression.
Pressured by news reports of Serbian atrocities, Clinton sought the middle ground between doing nothing and intervening militarily by providing humanitarian relief to Bosnia, enforcing the UN-declared ``no-fly zone,'' and backing peace negotiations.
The ambivalence was also reflected in the administration's confusion over the endgame in Bosnia. Even as it pledged to preserve the territorial integrity of Bosnia, it backed two peace plans calling for the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines.
``They've talked unity and acted partition,'' says a Senate source.
Wedded to the middle ground, Clinton found himself caught between US lawmakers and the European allies. Under pressure from the outgoing Congress, Clinton in November suspended US enforcement of the UN arms embargo on the Bosnian government, igniting a major transatlantic row.
The new Republican congressional leadership is now pushing Clinton to go a step further by unilaterally exempting Bosnia from the UN arms embargo. If he does, the Europeans say they will withdraw their troops from Bosnia and blame Washington for the wider war they contend will result.
``You had a kind of ambivalence about whether the US should be up front or not, and I think that has not been resolved,'' Zimmermann says.
Experts say the first major US misstep in Yugoslavia came in June 1991 when the former federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces was already well on the road to violent dissolution. Bush's Secretary of State James Baker made a highly publicized visit to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and threw his weight behind preserving the crumbling state.
Bush administration officials were convinced that the unraveling of the Yugoslav federation would lead to chaos in the Balkans. But the Serb-dominated army read Mr. Baker's statement as US approval for the use of force to prevent Croatia and Slovenia from seceding.
Critics concede that some turmoil would have attended the breakup of Yugoslavia. But they say a more orderly, less violent process of dissolution might have occurred, if Washington had become engaged earlier; leaned harder on Croatia to end human rights abuses against its Serbian minority; and arbitrated talks between the Belgrade government and Croatia and Slovenia.
``We opted for the impossible, which was to preserve Yugoslavia,'' says Patrick Glynn, an expert on the former Yugoslavia at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
``If the secession of Slovenia and Croatia had been less precipitous, the Serb response might have been less violent,'' adds Mr. Glynn.
Following the outbreak of full-scale war in July 1991 between Croatia and minority rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade, Washington relinquished the diplomatic initiative to the European Community and the UN. But Germany's insistence on recognizing Croatia's independence divided the EC, undermining its effectiveness as a mediator between Croatia and Serbia.
``By the fall they were really faltering,'' Zimmermann says. ``It became clear that the community was not up to dealing with this in a consistent way. So it became partly by default ... that the US had to get back in.''
But the US failed to respond forcefully to Serbian sieges and bombardments of the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik, which served as warnings of worse to come in Bosnia.
The US failed to persuade Germany to drop its insistence on international recognition of Croatia. In response, the European Community, in a move aimed more at preserving the appearance of unity, invited all of the former Yugoslav republics to seek recognition as independent states.
In response, Bosnia's Croats and Muslims sought recognition on the basis of a referendum that endorsed independence. The Bosnian Serbs, who boycotted the vote, used international recognition of Bosnia in April 1992 as the pretext to launch their campaign of territorial conquest and ethnic cleansing.