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A Serious Airlift, Please

THE intent behind the Clinton administration's imminent airlift to Bosnians is good. Most of the food and supplies are aimed at remote Muslim enclaves where United Nations relief trucks have not gotten through because of Serb blockades. The relief airlifts, if they are a serious attempt at aid while UN negotiations sputter, can tell the embattled Bosnians that the United States is getting more involved in their unjust plight.

Of course, that means the US must get more involved. If the airlift to the Bosnians is not serious, if it is only a few days' dropping of supplies in order to fulfill a campaign promise, it would almost be smarter, and more honest, not to do it at all.

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Smarter because a careless policy risks initiating a military conflict that the US is not truly prepared for (and thus souring public opinion about a real plan to bring justice to the region).

More honest because a transparently token effort may further dispirit Bosnia. It may say to Europeans, who have peacekeeping troops on the ground, that Clinton is interested only in weak symbols. It may tell Belgrade that Serbs in Bosnia can continue ethnic cleansing with little to worry about from the Americans.

A serious Clinton airlift policy will try to mend the broken promise of UN Resolution 770, passed last August and stating that humanitarian aid would be delivered to Bosnians by "all necessary means." President Clinton has had to be careful not to step on diplomatic toes in recent weeks. He has had to promise aid to all parties, Muslim, Croat, and Serb. But he would be on the right moral ground if his policy were to state roughly: Every time the UN relief convoys on the ground are blocked by force, the U S will airlift supplies.

Not all the aid will get through. It won't be enough. But a serious policy would be an enormous boost for the Bosnians - and a message to the Serbs.

What is at stake in the Balkans is more than just helping a nation withstand genocide. Bosnia tests not just whether the West can live up to its principles in the post-cold-war world, but whether it can stop the poison of nationalism from spreading throughout the still-nuclearized old East bloc.

Another reason to support the Bosnian government: It is the last moderate regime in the area.

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