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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Goals in Bosnia?

LONDON -- U.S. Vice-President Al Gore said it. British Prime Minister John Major said it. The Muslim Prime Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haris Silajdzic, also said it. So why did it not sound quite right when this eminent trio stated so confidently that, in their view, NATO's destruction of four Serbian aircraft over Bosnia Monday would contribute to peace in the former Yugoslav republic?

One reason concerns the nature of the war in Bosnia. This is a conflict in which fixed-wing aircraft have played only a minimal part. The Serbs did not need planes to conduct their ruthless sweep through Muslim communities in eastern Bosnia when the war erupted in April 1992. It was not Serbian pilots who blew up the mosques of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia. Similarly, the brutal Croatian siege of Mostar in southern Bosnia has nothing to do with airplanes.

Overwhelmingly, the Bosnian war has been a war fought by infantry and artillery forces as well as irregular bands of cut-throats. To destroy four light attack aircraft, as NATO did Monday, neither alters the course of the war nor acts as a deterrent to the Serbs. Indeed, if anything it encourages the Muslims to fight on in the hope of reversing Serbian territorial gains.

A second, more fundamental point concerns NATO's policy in Bosnia, the rest of former Yugoslavia and the Balkans as a whole. No one can really say what that policy is. Does the West stand for a united Bosnia within its pre-war borders? Or does it stand for a three-way partition of the republic into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim sectors? Or perhaps it stands for a Muslim-Croat political unit in association with Croatia, while the Bosnian Serbs merge with Serbia? There is no telling.

All we know is that, 45 years after its foundation, NATO has fired its weapons in anger for the first time, and it has done so in the absence of a clearly defined political objective. As military men will tell you, there is no action full of greater risks than the use of armed force in a political vacuum. So unless Western governments decide rapidly what sort of post-war Balkans they want to see, there is every chance the war will drag on and even get worse.

Shooting down four aircraft looks like a firm and decisive act. But it masks a deeper irresolution in the Western camp. In the space of two years and eight months, Western policy has swung from support for a united Yugoslavia to support for an independent Bosnia, to support for six Muslim enclaves, to support for various schemes of partition.

A little hypocrisy is at work as well. Although there is an official UN embargo on arms shipments to all participants in the war, it is no secret that the Muslims are increasingly well-equipped. They are getting weapons from somewhere -- probably from Muslim governments. Some analysts believe the United States supports this covert operation.

Like other Western countries, the United States is desperately afraid of the impact on the Muslim world of the West's perceived failure to come to Bosnia's rescue. Yet the United States is not prepared to go whole hog and beat the Serbs into submission by force. Instead, it seems to favor a settlement that would give the Serbs at least part of what they want. Irony of ironies, the Serbs will probably end up with the area around Banja Luka where NATO shot down the four planes.

Many would argue that the United States and its allies are right not to opt for large-scale military intervention in Bosnia. For one thing, such an action would have unpredictable consequences in Serb-occupied parts of Croatia, the mainly Albanian-populated Serbian province of Kosovo, the Serbian heartland itself and Yugoslav Macedonia. The West would be immersed in the Balkans until well into the next century, or it would have to beat a humiliating retreat.

It is unlikely that Russia would be a passive spectator of Western intervention. Moscow has made it clear that it believes it has interests at stake in the Balkans. A tougher Russian approach to former Soviet republics and eastern European allies could also be expected. Once enmeshed in the Balkans, does the West have a contingency plan for preserving the independence of Ukraine and the Baltic republics, or of Poland and Slovakia?

It is rarely a good idea to travel down a road in pitch blackness. But it can help if you have some idea of where you want to end up. In the case of Bosnia, the West's stumbling in the dark could turn out disastrously for us all.

Tony Barber is East European editor of the British newspaper The Independent. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.