Leading Article: Better than nothing

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THE American airdrop of supplies to Bosnia will be a perilous operation for all concerned: for the recipients, who may find the stuff landing on their heads; for the American pilots, who may be shot down; for United Nations troops on the ground, who will be drawn into any complications that ensue; and for President Clinton, who could find himself faced with a choice between humiliating withdrawal or deeper involvement. The only people who are certain to gain are the roving bands of soldiers and bandits who will pick up packages in the hills.

Yet the British and other Europeans are wrong to be quite so sniffy about the enterprise. Mr Clinton is at least doing something, and he wanted to do more. Although somewhat chastened by encountering reality after the tough talk of his election campaign, he still hoped to enforce the no-fly zone. He was discouraged by the British, warned off by his own military establishment, and blocked by the Russians.

He is now further constrained by fear of strengthening President Boris Yeltsin's opponents in Moscow. Unofficial Russian aid and volunteers have already been reaching the Serbian forces from these quarters. A further shift in the political balance in Moscow could bring deeper involvement, risking just the sort of East-West confrontation in Yugoslavia that was one of the worst nightmares of the Cold War. Although Russia is no longer much of a power, the support of a conservative regime for the Serbs could be extremely troublesome. Mr Clinton has tried to involve the present government in the negotiations, but Mr Yeltsin's position is weakening.

In these circumstances Mr Clinton's options are limited. He has chosen one of the few available to him. It does not amount to a great deal in itself, and contains a strong element of show business. Much of the aid will be wasted. Some of the targeted areas can be reached from the ground. Some already buy food from the besieging forces on the black market. Yet the effort will have value if some people are fed who would otherwise starve.

Politically, it has much wider implications because it signals the first active American involvement in the conflict. Had such a signal come a year ago there would have been a greater chance of stopping the war. Now it is almost too late because the momentum of the fighting has built up. The Croats and Muslims are determined to regain areas they have lost, and the Serbs will not give up easily. The quagmire in which outside forces operate is becoming deeper all the time.

But even limited American engagement could start to change the equation. The Europeans and the UN alone have been too weak to do more than slightly mitigate the horrors. All their plans, proposals and cease- fires have been ignored. Every time their convoys are stopped by Serbian forces, their weakness becomes more obvious.

Mr Clinton will have to decide whether he is prepared to accept the same humiliation by limiting his engagement. Even if none of his aircraft are shot down, even if the explosion in New York turns out to have nothing to do with Bosnia, even if a fair number of packages drop in the right places, he has committed the power of the United States to the conflict. He can walk away if he wishes, but at much greater cost to his credibility than if he had stayed aloof. Or he can join the search for solutions. What he cannot do is claim that a few parcels from the sky are all that the United States has to contribute. Nor can he pretend that the operation is without risk. The airdrops may look limited, even pusillanimous, but they are a gamble that could pay off. He deserves more support and less carping from the Europeans.