THE United States has never had a resolute policy on Europe's worst crisis since World War II, and if President Clinton's new NATO initiative in Bosnia is to mean anything, he must act. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger is correct in saying that ``the Rubicon has been crossed'' in Bosnia. The Serbs, the clear aggressors in the conflict, no longer believe in a credible NATO threat. We believe intervention to stop a genocide can be argued for on its own sake, on principle. Yet if Mr. Clinton is not ready to act, if his latest airstrike proposal is an exercise in only appearing to offer leadership, the initiative is counterproductive even on its own terms - acting to avoid a loss of NATO credibility. It will add to the growing mortgage on US diplomatic capital.
If the US president wants to act to stop the brutal Serb attack on Gorazde, to make the remaining five ``safe havens'' in Bosnia truly safe, and to force the Serbs to the negotiating table by a show of serious resolve, he can do so immediately. Mr. Clinton already has more UN authorization than he will ever need:
He can invoke UN Security Council Resolution 770 to use ``all necessary means'' to deliver humanitarian aid to Gorazde. Under Resolution 757 he can disarm unauthorized or irregular forces in Bosnia, as well as any regular army forces from Serbia or Croatia. Resolution 836 is a guarantee, unkept except for Sarajevo, of a ``safe haven'' for Muslim areas.
What is important, since this is an international issue, is not how Americans read Clinton's initiative, but how the Europeans, Russians, and Serbs read it. What they saw was the US president talking about holding a conference in three days - at the very time innocent civilians in Gorazde were under fire. Europeans know what this signals: They have lived under the Leninist adage that ``the talk of the guns is louder than the guns of the talk.'' If the French, or even the Russians, interpret Clinton's initiative as simply a more elaborate version of the irresolute US effort last May to ``consult'' with NATO, they will return to the brutal Realpolitik that brought the marketplace massacre in Sarajevo and chaos in Europe.
US-led NATO actions must be comprehensive enough to drive the Serbs to the table. Belgrade is in economic trouble; sanctions must be tightened.
Moral sentiment can be an unwise guide in foreign policy. Yet as European scholar Stanley Hoffman of Harvard implies, if precedents of doing nothing about crimes against humanity are bad enough, a moral position may itself be the real Realpolitik.