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Limited Air Strikes Accomplish Nothing

Column by Anders Hove
Associate Opinion Editor

In 1739, when Britain jubilantly trotted off to war with Spain over Captain Jenkins' severed ear, Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole remarked, "They now ring the bells, but they will soon wring their hands." Walpole understood the difficult nature of wielding military power, and thus went to war only reluctantly, hounded by a jingoistic public.

Last week, as a new Serbian advance in Bosnia threatened to overrun another embattled enclave, the man at the helm of the United Nations forces finally ran out of patience. General Sir Michael Rose authorized two successive air strikes on Serbian positions surrounding Gorazde, and NATO promptly delivered the UN's punch, as directed. One could almost hear the sigh of relief as the news of air strikes hit the streets here in America. Most thought the Serbs had asked for the pounding. They seemed to have only gotten what they deserved.

Yet Walpole's reluctance survives still today. It lives on in the Oval Office, where a president inexperienced in foreign policy wondered last week if the same people who forced him to accept the air strikes wouldn't soon want out of Bosnia. President Clinton seemed to know that he was stepping into a quagmire. Breaking with tradition, Clinton did not go on television to announce the strike and lay out a set of broad, righteous objectives worth killing and dying for. This was not a hawkish president enthusiastically jumping into another foreign adventure. It was Robert Walpole back from the grave, still wringing his hands.

Clinton has had plenty of company. Those who have pressed for peace in Bosnia have been united by their frustration; hand-wringing has been the order of the day for the last two years. The Vance-Owen plan failed miserably; Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's "blockade" of the Bosnian Serbs turned out to be a ruse; the United Nation's declaration of Bosnian "safe havens" did nothing to stop the Serbian drive; and the much vaunted "lift-and-strike" recommendations came to nothing.

Each time we thought we saw a light at the end of the Bosnian tunnel we got run over by a train - a Serbian train. No wonder we were refreshed last week when Rose finally decided to cut the nonsense and do something - anything - to break the impasse.

Despite the refreshing news, little has changed. The Serbs still threaten to strangle the remaining enclaves, including Gorazde, where they have launched new offensives after only a brief pause. The air strikes have greatly increased the danger to exposed UN personnel on the ground. Peace negotiations have broken down, as each side tries to turn the NATO action to its own advantage. Russia remains a wildcard, always ready to withdraw support from any new Western initiative.

But who expected air strikes to accomplish anything? The UN has used the threat of air power to deter Serbian aggression with limited success. One of the few obvious objectives of last week's strikes was to prove to the Serbs that the UN meant business.

But so what if we mean business? The Serbs are at war, and they have now shown themselves willing to continue gobbling up territory even out from under the NATO air umbrella. Now that we have used our main deterrent once, and still failed to impress the Serbs, what next?

Significantly, NATO's use of force has been less successful than earlier, more pragmatic moves by the United Nations in Bosnia. In Sarajevo, for instance, the UN clearly spelled out a set of terms (including the 13-mile exclusion zone) with which the Serbs would have to comply in order to avoid NATO strikes. The UN even worked out a compromise whereby Russian peacekeepers would join the Serbian lines in exchange for compliance. The fact that the world seemed genuinely committed to its demands drove the issue home to the Serbs. If they did not comply, the Serbs faced certain and protracted ugliness at the hands of the "world community."

In Gorazde, so far as we know, General Rose and UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi did not present any set of specific terms of compliance. Instead, Rose threatened air strikes if Serbs did not halt their advances. These threats were only meekly backed up by NATO's member nations, especially here in the United States, where military officials were nearly ready to give the Serbs the "green light" to overrun Gorazde. For its part, the White House agreed to air strikes only as reprisals against Serbian raids on UN personnel. When NATO finally went in, only a few bombs were dropped, causing light damage on the ground. In other words, the West completely failed to lay out a set of terms to the Serbs, using force not as a tool but as a reprisal.

By contrasting these two operations, we should learn that threats are credible when they are backed by firm resolve and overwhelming force. Moreover, the threat of force should be used to attain specific, limited objectives, which should be clearly communicated within a framework that allows both compliance by and compromise with the Serbs.

If nothing else, last week's bombings should serve to remind us yet again that American military might is no magic elixir, especially in the Balkans. Earlier this year, as the trickle of State Department resignations over the Bosnian situation swelled to deluge proportions, the American public was given to believe that the Balkan question could be easily solved "by planes alone." Not so, Gorazde seems to tell us.

Ironically, however, the failure of last week's strikes has brought to the fore new proposals for wider air strikes, some coming from President Clinton himself. Proponents of further air strikes argue that NATO's credibility will be lost forever if further military force is not used to stop the Serbian drive and force the Serbs back to the negotiating table. Will further strikes be different from those of last week? More importantly, will the United States finally become fully entangled in a war that has already been all but won by the Serbs?

The West has done its share of bungling in the Balkans, but bungling has never had any easy alternatives. Now that we have finally tried the long-recommended quick fix, we realize that we must choose between the slow, cynical policy of realpolitik, and full-scale intervention.