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High Stakes in Bosnia for Clinton and Bush

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IT'S time for a change in United States policy toward the Yugoslav war. Before Jan. 20 there is time to stabilize the situation. But President-elect Clinton and President Bush must work together quickly to push the West to take responsibility for Bosnia's survival. If they do nothing, President Clinton will inherit a festering crisis that may carry into other areas. Bosnia could be doomed - a terrible precedent for further aggression in the Balkans.

The first priority is to abandon efforts at neutrality. Balkan history or no, Serbia is the clear aggressor, a rogue country in central Europe. Although the US and United Nations single out Serbia as bearing an overwhelming share of the responsibility for this war, Western statements tend to lapse into a phony "moral equivalence" where blame is all equally spread.

Worse, the fact of Serbian culpability is lost when Mr. Bush or Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger speak. In the first presidential debate Bush talked about "ancient ethnic rivalries that cropped up as Yugoslavia has dissolved." He went on to say he would "stand by and use moral persuasion." Mr. Eagleburger echoes such remarks. He talks about centuries of ethnic conflict. He reminds the press that he has said "38,000 times" that intervention in this "civil war" won't work.

It is those often-repeated remarks, not official statements, that inform the American public. No American wants a part of another foreign civil war. So while the public remains misinformed, assistance to the victims, especially to Bosnia, is not a US policy option - for either Bush or Clinton.

Here are the facts: In July 1991, Serbia invaded Croatia, arguing that the 12 percent Serbian minority there needed protection. They did. Croat ethnic nationalism threatened non-Croat minorities. But most Serbian Croats were fairly well assimilated in places like Zagreb; Serbian minority problems could have been handled. Instead, Serbia invaded and occupied 30 percent of Croatia - killing 10,000 people and committing thousands of atrocities.

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