Leading article: A way out of the Bosnian mire

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THE WEST is now at another crossroads in the Bosnian war where policies must be redefined and decisions taken. At each of the previous such points, it has fumbled and made two fundamental mistakes. One has been to announce principles and policies that it was not prepared to defend. The other has been to assume that the warring parties would be susceptible to diplomatic persuasion not backed by force.

Having arrived at this miserable position, there are three main options, which we put before our readers on Wednesday. One is to pull out altogether and leave the combatants to fight on. The second is to decide that the Serbs must be defeated and then look for the best ways of achieving this, whether by arming the Muslims, with or without air support, or by sending UN troops into battle on the ground. The third is to continue trying to maintain the present uneasy combination of humanitarian relief, protection of civilians and negotiation with the participants.

Pulling out would be materially the cheapest for the West but morally the most costly, leaving many thousands more Bosnians to die and the military outcome uncertain. The second option would, if successful, have the merit of upholding international law and the authority of the UN. These have both been flouted by the Serbs, who have sent massive armed help across an international frontier and slaughtered, tortured and expelled civilians.

There are those who argue that the only way to cure the Serbs of their perverted nationalist fantasies is by inflicting on them a defeat as shattering as that suffered by the Germans in 1945. But there is also the possibility that, instead of learning their lesson, they would become even more resentful and troublesome, creating chronic instability in the region.

There would also be a price to pay for their defeat in terms of relations with Russia. The damage might be contained, especially if the job were done quickly, since the Russians do not care deeply about the Serbs. But the risk of wider repercussions would then have to be faced.

The third option is the most difficult because it would require the UN forces to continue combining roles that are fundamentally in conflict. When they bomb the Serbs they are treated as a belligerents, whether justly or not; but if they do not bomb, they lose authority and cannot defend civilians.

Whatever is now decided, the vital need is to establish realistic aims and then pursue them determinedly with all the resources necessary. The worst of all options is the combination of indecision, unfulfilled promises, unconvincing threats and open divisions that has brought the UN to its present unenviable position - and the Bosnians to so much misery.