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Make The Serbs Want To End War

William Safire New York Times

A high-ranking U.S. defense official tells me: “If we get the order, we can take out every Serbian tank and artillery piece threatening Sarajevo.”

But the order from the United Nations, NATO and the White House to destroy the 300 targets has not come. Instead we are being treated to an illusion, with more bombast than bombing.

That’s because the mission is not to obliterate the guns aimed at Sarajevo. Despite stern statements from President Clinton, ominous poses of Western commanders and gee-whiz TV coverage of explosions and smoke, the military mission is not to achieve military victory.

The first phase of the bombing was to make further bombing safer: primary targets were radar installations, antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile sites. For alliance solidarity, much was made of “return fire” from British and French artillery.

But the airmen have no orders to take out the guns and crews that have been killing Muslim civilians. When the bombing was halted by Clinton’s emissary, Richard Holbrooke, the purpose of the short show of force became apparent: to induce the Serbs to come to a meeting.

The military mission was not to break the siege once and for all, but merely to encourage withdrawal of siege guns to a dozen miles from Sarajevo. Even if successful in that limited mission, noisepower would not change matters; after the Serbs diddled the diplomats again, the same guns would return to hold Bosnia’s capital hostage again.

When the Serbian gunners were not frightened away by sonic booms over Pale, our bombing resumed. Reports of destruction of command posts and barracks are vague because the mission is limited; bridges are untouched.

We have been told for years that air power alone could not begin to do the job of breaking the siege. Mountains, you know; camouflage; mobile artillery and missiles; bad weather.

Now the moment is here. With air defenses largely suppressed, tactical aircraft can fly low and slow. Will the potential of air power to save besieged cities at last be tested? Will NATO aircraft be allowed to bomb gunners who killed civilians?

No. That’s not the game. That would be taking sides. If tactical bombing were allowed to destroy the 300 targets, Bosnian government forces might move in to take those positions. That just wouldn’t do; it might offend the Serbs and encourage the resistance of the Muslims.

Such calibration of military suasion is too clever by half. The way to get the Serbs to accept peace is to convince them they will lose in war.

At Friday’s meeting, Holbrooke should stop acting as agonized facilitator and instead lay down hard conditions for a cessation of NATO’s longterm air hostilities.

He should say that bombing will continue until all heavy guns and tanks around Sarajevo and other U.N. havens are destroyed, including those havens captured by Serbs last month. He should treat Serbian obstinacy as an opportunity to balance the forces in Bosnia; in blowing up heavy weapons, we extend an ironic kind of arms embargo to the Serbs.

Then he should try a technique that American courts use to coerce unions striking illegally: Apply a contempt penalty for every day the Serbs fail to sign the deal.

The occupiers of 70 percent of “cleansed” territory are offered 49 percent of Bosnia. But so long as the Bosnian government agrees to the West’s plan, with each day’s refusal by Serbs to sign, the percentage of land offered Serbs in an agreement should drop by 1 percent a day.

That would concentrate the mind. Belgrade’s Milosevic would quickly tell his Bosnian compatriots they must settle before all the fruits of their aggression are lost.

The time for impotent mediation is long past. The willingness to intercede with sustained air power earns the West the right to impose binding arbitration. Bomb the siege guns; present the deal; if the Serbs reject it, level the killing field from the air, arm the victims and let them fight for their country.

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