Yugoslavia: Is Commander Bush Taking Charge?

It was hardly the European Community's finest performance. During the past year, Yugoslavia's civil war has driven up body counts in Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo. Yet, with their incessant squabbling, ec diplomats have proven themselves incapable of handling the crisis. So, President George Bush is now leading the crusade. Backed by the U.N., he's vowing to use U.S. military force to get supplies into battered Sarajevo, capital of breakaway republic Bosnia-Herzegovina. So much for the grand vision of an independent ec foreign policy. For now at least, the U.S. still calls the shots on Europe's security.

Yet for Bush, who faces a tough reelection campaign, the strategy could backfire. The military mission doesn't compare with booting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The Yugoslavian conflict is a sticky, fratricidal civil war more like Vietnam, complete with guerrillas and snipers. Nor does the U.S. have a compelling economic interest, such as oil, in the region. Even so, on June 30, Bush offered U.S. Navy and Air Force jets to fly cover for U.N. troops and supply convoys on the ground. He ordered six ships carrying Marines into the Adriatic Sea. Two U.S. military cargo planes stand ready to fly supplies into Sarajevo.

SURPRISE VISIT. The U.S.'s global-cop gambit will also complicate relations with the Europeans, particularly France. The ec's fumbling on the issue plays into the hands of Pentagon officials, who want to refashion the U.S.-led nato as Europe's primary security organization. If it deals successfully with the Yugoslovian crisis, nato will be encouraged to play policeman in other troubled spots. The idea, says one senior Administration official, is "to get to conflicts before they arise."

The French, who prefer an all-European defense structure and a diminished nato, strongly resent Washington's continued domination of Europe's foreign policy. Such irritants have already come to play in the Yugoslavian crisis. When he paid a surprise visit to Sarajevo on June 28, French President

Franois Mitterrand was as much driven by a desire to one-up Bush as to draw attention to the city's plight. When the U.N. sent more than 800 troops to Sarajevo, Mitterrand quickly announced that some 450 French soldiers would join them.

But whatever their nationalities, the troops face huge obstacles. The Sarajevo airport is surrounded by mountains as high as 7,000 feet, offering Serbian artillery units the high ground. Even if the airport remains open, it's not big enough to supply the city. To do that, the U.N. will need to secure a 160-mile land corridor from the Croatian port of Split.

LOCAL FEUD. If things turn bloody, the U.N. likely will ask for U.S. airpower to root out Serbian artillery positions near Sarajevo. Bush has ruled out using ground troops. Yet if U.S. pilots are captured or killed, U.S. public opinion could force him to back off, eroding his credibility as the Mr. Fix-it of world diplomacy. The Serbs also could pull back and attack other cities, making Bush's effort pointless. "I think we ought to stay out," warns retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor. "That has been a center of violence for centuries."

Now that the world's remaining superpower is on the scene, the Serbians have a new rallying point. This may only preserve the regime of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who had been facing opposition at home. It is the kind of local feud the Administration would rather let the Europeans handle. But they're not. Bush is putting the U.S. in a situation more complicated than most Americans imagine.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.