NATO's biggest show of muscle ever turned out to be more farce than force. On Monday, 39 allied planes repaid Croatian Serbs for using napalm and cluster bombs against civilians in Bihac -- a so-called ""safe area'' in northwest Bosnia -- by cratering an air base in Udbina (map). ""Clearly the signal has been sent,'' said Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe. Problem was, the Serbs didn't get it: they responded by repairing the runway, pressing their attack on the besieged enclave and firing on a couple of patrolling British jets. On Wednesday, more than 50 NATO aircraft hit three Serbian missile sites. In return, the Serbs took 250 U.N. soldiers hostage, and moved to within a half-mile of Bihac, where they rained shells on 45,000 apartment dwellers, 20,000 refugees and the hundreds of mostly unarmed Bangla-deshi U.N. troops. On Friday NATO planes set off to pound the offending artillery pieces, but failed to find them. ""We are in total disarray,'' says a U.N. official.
He wasn't exaggerating. After 32 months of a brutally intractable war and the collapse of three major peace plans, the West has been sorely humbled by Bosnia. One powerful reason is that the Serbs have outdared and outsmarted a gun-shy international community. As an aide to the Bosnian Serb president retorted to U.N. commander Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose last week, ""Don't f--- with us, Mike.'' The other reason for despondency is that the Bosnian conflict has sparked skirmishes on other fronts -- between NATO and the United Nations, and between the United States and its European and Russian partners. Keeping the peace among the peacekeepers has created the biggest fracas among friends since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Once a crucial test of the new world order, Bosnia has devolved into a theater of the absurd. ""No matter how ambiguous our mission may be,'' says the U.N. special envoy Yasushi Akashi, ""we have no alternative but to do our best.''
The latest gesture is a Pentagon decision to send 2,000 U.S. Marines and sailors aboard three amphibious ships to the Adriatic Sea off Bosnia. They will not intervene to stop the assault on Bihac, but stand ready to evacuate downed NATO pilots, U.N. soldiers or U.S. personnel. The Bosnian Serb leader warned Washington it risked ""another Vietnam.'' But he missed the political import of the move: a possible attempt to muffle the chronic grumbling by Britain and France that America has been little more than a kibitzer in the conflict -- ready to urge tougher measures against the Serbs, but unwilling to ante up by committing ground troops. ""If you want to play the game, you've got to put a team on the field,'' says a NATO official.
A token military presence probably won't resolve the growing U.S. rift with its allies. ""Angry, sharp and bitter divisions,'' says a diplomat, characterizing last week's meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's decision-making body. America proposed a total heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Bihac, strategic bombing of Serbian targets and a U.N. force to push back the Serbs; France objected, asking where the additional troops would come from. The stalemated session pointed up a fundamental difference in outlook: the United States views the crisis as a war of aggression by ethnic Serbs against a largely victimized Muslim population; the Europeans and Russians, by contrast, point to atrocities on all sides, and blame a recent Muslim offensive for the latest Serbian assault in Bihac. U.S. attempts to help the outgunned Bosnians by lifting the arms embargo have further enraged the allies, who fear reprisals against their peacekeepers.
Western intervention has only prolonged the war. The United Nations inserted troops without giving them a combat role, then hobbled NATO's ability to stop the conflict by claiming the sole right to call in airstrikes. U.N. commanders have repeatedly declined to use that power even to protect their own people, much less civilians, from Serbian attack. As a result, one safe area after another -- Srebrenica, Zepa, Gorazde -- has been reduced to a refugee camp dependent on international aid for years to come. At the weekend, with Bihac near collapse, the U.N. Security Council demanded the withdrawal of Serbian forces and called on all parties to negotiate a cease-fire. If Bihac falls, Greater Serbia -- linking ethnic radicals in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia -- becomes a real possibility, dashing new peace efforts. Zagreb and Belgrade, at pains to sort out their 1991 war, could be drawn into battle again. And the West may finally be forced to take sides.