Getting Tough in Bosnia

Do we really want to wake up someday and read this obituary in the morning paper? "Alas, poor Bosnia, we didn't know her well. Once a multiethnic state in the Balkans, now gone -- partitioned, annexed, absorbed, confederated -- a casualty of post-Cold War ethnic conflict. Survivors include at least 3 million refugees. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Save NATO Fund."

If the United States and its allies are too quick to write Bosnia off, they may end up burying other things besides.

For more than two years now, an increasingly divided West has watched as Bosnia-Herzegovina has bled. Frustration has mounted because the victim hasn't done us the courtesy of going quickly or gently, and we have grown weary of our vigil. No one shows any will to save Bosnia, and no one will help Bosnia try to save itself.

Lacking a consensus on anything from lifting or not lifting the arms embargo to delivering punishing air strikes or pinpricks, the West has been left with a nonstrategy of wait and see and hope that something will turn up. Something always has: Sarajevo market bombings, Gorazde, Bihac. Always more refugees.

Western newspapers in recent days even featured pictures of Serbs forcing Moslems to wear the fez, the way the Nazis forced Jews to wear the Star of David.

The only thing worse than no consensus is a bad consensus. And this week, a consensus worthy of Dr. Kevorkian, America's champion of physician-assisted suicide, has begun to form. Whether it is being reached with agonized reluctance, as in the case of the United States, or with harsh realism, as in the case of the British and French, matters little. The effect on Bosnia would be the same: pulling the plug.

Wouldn't assisted suicide be best for everybody, Bosnia most of all? We're practically there already. A big "no aggressive measures" sign has been hanging on Bosnia's door for a long time now, despite all the reassurances to the patient that we will use "all necessary means" to save it.

Last summer the five-nation "contact group" persuaded Bosnia to sign the consent form for an ethnic split of territory that was one step shy of partition. "So you lose a limb or two; dismemberment's better than death. Besides, we'll make the Serbs agree -- or else."

Of course the "or else" never occurred. Instead we relied on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic turning against his archrival, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. But Karadzic was as unimpressed by Milosevic's hollow sticks as he was by those brandished by the Western powers. So now we're trying to entice him with juicy carrots.

Meanwhile Bosnia has the temerity to keep fighting for its own existence. Only a month ago the media marveled at the success that the Bosnian army was having in the Bihac pocket, regaining home ground lost to Serbian ethnic cleansing. Now, as resurgent Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb forces converge on the Bihac "safe area," cleansing and burning as they go, the Bosnian army is castigated for having had the nerve to try to take back its own territory. The Bihac safe zone, which is swollen with refugees from both the prior and current Serb campaigns, reportedly is being hit at a rate of six shells a minute. The Serb attack on Bihac is also destroying the fragile Bosnian-Croatian Federation. Though the West so far has kept Zagreb from re-entering the war, Croatia now sees that only force, and not the West's intercession, will get back its breakaway Krajina region.

There is still time -- very little -- for the West and the international community to act -- not only to preserve Bosnia but also to restore some respect for international institutions, for the Western alliance and for the principles they were founded to protect. That will not come from pressuring Bosnia to surrender -- which it will never do -- or by agreeing to the formation of a Greater Serbia.

The United States and its allies must immediately take the following steps to save Bosnia:

? Recognize that the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, UNPROFOR -- which is now more than ever clearly a hostage to the situation on the ground -- has become more of a hindrance than a help. It must be withdrawn.

? Since UNPROFOR's withdrawal inevitably means giving up the so-called safe areas, civilian inhabitants of these areas must be evacuated to other, less exposed areas.

? The Bosnian Serbs must be put on notice that any interference with the UN and civilian withdrawals will be met with massive NATO air attacks.

? Once UNPROFOR is gone, the West must open up the arms spigot to Bosnia.

? The West must make it absolutely clear to the Bosnian Serbs that if they continue to attack civilian populations, or attempt to prevent the delivery of humanitarian supplies, or fail to engage in any serious international negotiations, NATO will use air power against their arms dumps, oil depots and other targets throughout the territory they occupy.

Obviously this is not an ideal proposal. It is fraught with uncertainties. But it is better in the long term than Western capitulation to Serb aggression.

Should Bosnia disappear from the map or be left a misshapen shadow of its former self, its dismembered ghost would continue to haunt the region for years to come and would cause the West even bigger headaches into the next century.

And what then would be the fate of multiethnic Macedonia? Of the volatile Krajina region of Croatia? Or of Belgrade-oppressed Kosovo, with its 95 percent Albanian population?

If the Serbs get their Greater Serbia, wouldn't the Albanians of Kosovo be entitled to a Greater Albania? The more the West tries to put the partition of Bosnia behind it, the larger it looms ahead.

Morton Abramowitz is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.