PRESIDENT Clinton is getting a bum rap on Bosnia.
Critics complain that Mr. Clinton gave in to European allies in a plan that acquiesces in Serbian "ethnic cleansing." Would they prefer that he tell Europe to bug off, and that he intervene unilaterally in what has become not a two-way, but a three-way, civil war involving Serbs, Muslims, and Croats?
Clinton has avoided injecting the United States in a quagmire that would make Vietnam look simple. It is too bad our European allies would not agree to doing more, but the important thing is that we are proceeding together. The worst thing that can be said about the administration's Bosnia policy is that the Serbs have welcomed it. If the Serbs like it, there must be something wrong with it. And there is. It accepts de facto, at least temporarily, Serb conquests that have been achieved by atrocious Serb behavior. But the Serbs are hurting from the United Nations' economic sanctions, and they can be made to hurt more.
Another drawback to the administration's policy is the political price the US will have to pay in the Muslim world where we will be seen as acquiescing in persecution of Bosnian Muslims.
Clinton is being criticized for not being decisive, for not rallying the allies to follow American leadership and set matters right in what used to be Yugoslavia. Unflattering contrasts have been drawn with President Bush's leadership when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Aside from the fact that the two situations are not comparable, let it be remembered that Mr. Bush wavered a bit himself until he was egged on by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One of Mrs. Thatcher's entourage later talked of the success ful completion of a backbone transplant.
From her perch in the House of Lords, Lady Thatcher is now hurling verbal thunderbolts at the Serbs; but John Major, her successor as prime minister, takes quite a different view.
The most appropriate entity to deal with the breakup of Yugoslavia has always been NATO, in harmony with Russia if possible, without Russia if necessary. But NATO has had no stomach for direct action, either in the beginning (when Bush was president) or currently (when Clinton is president). When Clinton sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher to try to get NATO and Russian support for sterner measures, Mr. Christopher got a different response in every capital, but in no capital was it enthusiasticall y affirmative.
The plan, which emerged from an ad hoc meeting of American, British, French, Russian, and Spanish foreign ministers in Washington, is something on which four major countries agree. That is progress, however modest.
The plan met bipartisan criticism in the Senate. But that only proves the Senate is hard to please in matters of foreign policy.
For a more assertive policy in Bosnia, Clinton needed to do more than rally the allies. He needed to rally Congress and the American people. Would those who are criticizing the present outcome have supported such an effort? It seems unlikely.
The coincidence of the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and stark TV pictures of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia presented a strong temptation to intervene with force even if we had to do it alone. The president is to be commended for resisting this temptation. As infuriating as the Serbs' behavior is, it is no worse than what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia in the years following the US withdrawal in 1975. And the US did nothing.
The US cannot impose itself all over the world. We can and should join others - in the UN, NATO, or other international organizations - to help in this endless task. But the fact that we are the only remaining superpower does not mean that we have established world hegemony. Nor should we try to.