BOSNIA is developing into the defining crisis of the post-cold-war era, testing whether the international community has the power to control barbarism at all.
The word ''deterrence'' loses its meaning when measured airstrikes are answered with hostage-taking that paralyzes the world. ''Peacekeeping'' loses its meaning when peacekeepers pull back into safer areas for their own protection rather than protecting Bosnian communities designated by the United Nations as safe areas.
Why our government pushed for the airstrikes without any advance planning to deal with retaliation against UN troops is something the Clinton administration will still have to answer for. The melancholy fact to be considered now is that the Bosnian Serbs, instead of halting the shelling of Sarajevo, have seized enough artillery to be able to shell Sarajevo with redoubled intensity.
A definition of futility is having only bad options and worse options. Trying to rescue the hostage peacekeepers, who have been widely scattered, is a poor option right now. Withdrawing the peacekeeping forces with the aid of American troops, who are getting very good at evacuations, risks resistance not only from Bosnian Serbs but from despairing Bosnian Muslims. And if a Balkan Dunkirk does succeed, the communal war is bound to intensify and to spread.
Groupings of nations -- United Nations, NATO, the European Community, the ''contact group'' -- are struggling to agree on a course of action because they sense that more is at stake than Bosnia. Russia has belatedly condemned brutality against the peacekeepers, realizing they are the symbols of order in the world. The world is watching to see whether the ''great powers,'' as they like to call themselves, are able to act in concert to maintain a modicum of security -- or whether Bosnia means the world is descending into lawlessness.
A further complication for the Clinton administration is an assertive Republican Congress. In Hong Kong, on a recent weekend, more than 200 people were wounded during rioting in Vietnamese detention camps. UN officials said a contributing factor was a Republican bill in Congress that would spare them repatriation to Vietnam by offering many of them asylum in the United States. This provided a vivid demonstration of the unintended consequences of congressional intervention into sensitive foreign- policy situations.
The postponement until after the Memorial Day recess of a House vote on the so-called American Overseas Interests Act provided time to reconsider the wisdom of proposals to chop foreign aid to a level that would leave America as a nonplayer in most of the third world, eliminate three agencies that represent arms of American foreign policy, and tie the administration's hands in dealing with countries like China, Russia, Cuba -- and Bosnia.
President Clinton may be behind the times when he accuses the Republicans of isolationism. Isolationism, the impulse to draw inward into a fortress America, died at Pearl Harbor. What we are dealing with today in the new generation of Republican activists is something called unilateralism -- that is, a readiness to use American power in support of designated American interests, but a shedding of the restraints of ''entangling alliances'' and multilateral arrangements, starting with the UN.
Nothing has brought that attitude -- and it is more an attitude than a policy -- into sharper relief than the UN-ordered NATO bombing of a Bosnian Serb ammunition depot in retaliation for the merciless shelling of Sarajevo. The arrangement by which NATO, and thus the US, becomes an instrument of the UN is cumbersome and anathema to the unilateralists. But would the America Firsters have been willing to countenance a unilateral intervention in Bosnia, far from America's vital interests? On the other hand, would they have felt comfortable standing by as Americans reacted to seeing the strangling of Sarajevo on television?
In large expanses of the world, the American separation of powers is not understood. In most democratic countries it is assumed that the president has the confidence of his legislature or he will resign.
When Congress tries to micromanage foreign policy, it may produce immense and sometimes dangerous confusion about who is in charge. The unilateralist approach may leave America unable to pursue national interests like human rights which are not construed to be vital national interests. Sarajevo serves as a timely signal to the congressional leadership to think again.