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.
Then, in April 1992, Serbia invaded Bosnia - saying Bosnia's 31 percent Serb minority was threatened. But in Bosnia, Serbs were well assimilated - better than in Croatia. The Bosnian government pursued moderate policies to guarantee civil rights for all ethnic groups. There was no problem. In fact, Bosnia had been the model of ethnic tolerance the US government wanted other areas of Yugoslavia to emulate! Now Serb forces occupy 70 percent of Bosnia, have killed 70,000 people, driven 1.5 million from thei r homes, and committed uncounted acts of barbarism.
These events were not and are not a "civil war." There has been no fighting on Serbian soil. Neither Croatia nor Bosnia has ever harbored intentions to take part of Serbia. Rather, this is a war of aggression waged by an evil regime in Belgrade that has brainwashed its people much in the fashion of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
For the West to oppose Serb aggression it must be seen for what it is. Diplomatic hedging or indulgence in denial only prolong the suffering of innocent people. To save Bosnia, Bush and Clinton must agree the US should take sides.
Yugoslavia is the benchmark for the kind of foreign policy crises the Clinton administration will face repeatedly. It calls for US leadership in a new but dangerous world. The lesson is that international institutions, as currently organized and operated, can't deal with local, high-intensity aggression. No one knows how to deal with fragmenting former communist states - how to sort legitimate from illegitimate demands for self-determination.
The lack of such a set of rules need not result in a lack of will to confront aggression. Rather, it shows a need to adapt current institutions such as the UN and NATO to the post-cold war world.
Turmoil may rock Europe for a decade. With no institutions ready to confront aggression, the West can't cope with mini-wars in the old USSR, or elsewhere. Local leaders bent on aggression will learn from Yugoslavia that aggression pays.
The key to a larger solution is in Bosnia. The next two months are critical. The Bush administration must not give in to the inertia of failure; the men around Bush should pause to consider their role and responsibilities. They will be blamed if the rot spreads. They may well appear culpable for the deaths of many innocent people when history is finally told. Before leaving power, they should leave a cleaner slate:
First, close the US embassy in Belgrade. Its very existence sends Serbia the same mixed message Bush and Eagleburger send the American people. It tells Belgrade we can almost do business as usual. It tells Serbs that the US won't act militarily, lest we put our diplomats in a hostage situation. In a sense, having an embassy in Belgrade is much like siding with Serbia. If the embassy were closed, the US could move to deal with the problems at hand.
THE second, perhaps last, step the Bush administration should take is to work to lift the UN arms embargo against Bosnia.
Giving Bosnians access to weapons, and giving aid to people affected by the fighting, are linked. Unless Bosnians control some land, the ability of Western governments and the UN to deliver aid depends on Serb willingness to distribute it. Incredibly, the US government considers it possible to deliver aid through Belgrade. More likely, despite assurances, Serb forces will not forward humanitarian relief - but continue to kill civilians and ethnically cleanse Bosnia of non-Serbs.
The 1.5 million refugee Bosnians, mainly Muslims, plus 500,000 others in beseiged towns, are caught, to quote Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadjic, "like rats in a cage." They are desperate to escape. But Croatia, ignoring international obligations to accept refugees, turns displaced Bosnians back. Europe and the US only take a token number. Recently, Croat forces in Bosnia - assuming the collapse of the Bosnian government and the carving up of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia - have begun "cleansing" M uslims, who have literally nowhere to go but the hills. Earlier UN estimates that 400,000 people may die this winter may be too low. A million deaths is not inconceivable.
As things stand, Bosnia cannot long survive. Bosnia's government still controls 10 percent of its territory - a few towns and the capital, Sarajevo. But with no weapons, Bosnians cannot resist Serb heavy guns. If the US were to give the Bosnians arms, or allow them access to arms, they could defend the areas they control; expand them into "havens" for people trapped in small villages; protect convoys through enemy territory. Arming the Bosnians is far more sensible than sending UN or NATO troops to fight
their way through on escort duty. That would be the sort of quagmire we want to avoid. Arms won't assure that Bosnia or Bosnians survive, but they offer a chance. In my judgment, the Bosnians could, if armed now, succeed in recovering and reconstituting their country.
The logic against arming Bosnians is that it would only contribute to more violence. Western mediators tell Bosnians to give up land in exchange for their lives. But from the Bosnian point of view, negotiation or surrender is not an answer. They know what to expect from Serb forces. The choice the Bosnians see is to give up and die quickly, or resist and die slowly but with hope. They choose the latter. That is their choice to make, not ours.
Not only morally, but legally, the arms embargo doesn't make sense. The UN imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia when that state was intact. But Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia are now UN members. The former Yugoslavia no longer exists. As an independent state, Bosnia has a right to collective self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Bosnians want that help. If the US won't give it to them, other states will - but only after the embargo is lifted. For that, US leadership is needed. If Bosnia loses control of its land, the task of reconstituting Bosnia becomes far more complicated, perhaps impossible. A victory will only whet Serbia's appetite for further conquest. Kosovo is next. Then the entire Balkans will go up in flames.