Dual Steering on Bosnia

UNFORTUNATELY, history cannot be played twice to see which version works better.

Unlike those never very satisfying movies or books that give participants a choice of endings, the Bosnian war is being pushed and pulled by rival theorists making decisions involving the lives of tens of thousands of people without knowing the ending. The result more closely resembles some dual-steering-wheel driver education car with two differently schooled instructors lurching along, leaving tragic casualties on the roadside.

The two driving strategies are (1) the negotiate-from-carefully-calculated-strength school favored by President Clinton and his NATO counterparts, and (2) the more-force-leads-to-settlement school favored by Bob Dole and a majority of his Senate colleagues.

The risk inherent in the first approach is appeasement whetting the aggressor's appetite. That's happening. The risk inherent in the second approach is escalation into larger war.

ALL parties now are making adjustments in the wake of the United States Senate's genuine vote of conscience July 26. Clinton pressed immediately for a greater threat of retaliatory bombing against the Bosnian Serbs. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali reluctantly agreed. The Russians counter-threatened escalation, saying they would supply more arms to the Serbs if Bosnian Muslims received heavier weapons.

Serbian general Ratko Mladic temporarily diverted the focus of his attacks, as he has so often in the past when retaliatory strikes are threatened or begun.

Never far out of sight lurks the implied danger that United Nations peacekeepers might again be taken hostage by the Serbs as a shield against NATO bombing. Or that United States troops might be needed to (1) rescue or (2) evacuate the thin, punctured ranks of UN protectors in dwindling Muslim enclaves.

Basically School No. 1 (negotiate from calculated strength) still holds the dominant steering wheel. The House has yet to vote on the arms embargo. Clinton presumably will veto. He is already at work trying to persuade enough Democratic deserters in the Senate not to help override that veto.

The Dole-designed embargo-ending is itself a multistage process that would take time, if it gets past a Clinton veto. And meanwhile, British and French military commanders will likely be cautious about escalation via air war.

The Senate vote is worth study. It was surprising, not for the size of its repudiation of the president's eroding policy, but for the strange bedfellows resulting from a rare vote of conscience.

Liberals and conservatives who had been at each other's throats on domestic matters voted together on both sides of the embargo-lifting issue.

Staunch UN supporter Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York voted against the UN approach - and for an end to the embargo. So did the always carefully thoughtful Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia. Equally thoughtful Robert Kerrey voted to keep the embargo.

In the absence of the lab scientist's luxury of being able to run experiments several ways, the politicians, diplomats, and generals who are running this war, and also the war-avoidance efforts, must refer to past history for guidance, both tactical and moral. In general, Clinton remembers Vietnam body bags and the fall of Lyndon Johnson.

His fellow NATO leaders seem conscious of what might be called Sarajevo One, the escalation that resulted in wider war in 1914. France's Jacques Chirac is the exception, seeming to take his cue from concern over the appeasement at Munich that led to Hitler's increasing territorial appetite 20 some years later. Slobodan Milosevic, offstage, and Radovan Karadzic, in Bosnia, must be emboldened by memories of how Yugoslav partisans held Hitler's army at bay in this hilly terrain.

ut really major escalation seems improbable. Slobodan Milosevic's Serbs, however ruthless, are not capable of any blitzkrieg beyond eastern Bosnia. Moscow is in a relatively weak position. Arms aid to the Bosnian forces, even covert aid from Iran, may lead to heavier fighting - perhaps fulfilling Clinton's casualty fears - but not to an outburst beyond former Yugoslavia.

All of which undoubtedly explains why Democrats Nunn and Moynihan voted to abandon a negotiation policy that has been nibbled and swallowed to pieces in favor of a troubling move to the other steering wheel. They are guessing that the threat of toughening the gradually improving Bosnian government army, and putting more American teeth behind it, will at last get the Bosnian Serbs to stop their feeding and to accept borders they've come close to agreeing to in the past. We concur.

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