Leading Article: Only force will do in Bosnia

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's weakest point is his uncertain attitude to the use of armed force. It derives not just from his decision as a young man to avoid fighting in Vietnam, which was a legitimate matter of conscience, but also from the ethos of his White House, which is infected by the anti-military feelings of the Sixties. This renders his administration suspect among military leaders and probably undermines Mr Clinton's own confidence in taking military decisions.

He made a bad start by giving early priority to admitting homosexuals to the armed forces, and has since bungled his first use of armed force in Waco. He is now in danger of making another mistake by arming the Muslims in Bosnia.

If he goes ahead he will do no favour to the Bosnians and deep damage to the Western alliance. It would cause the first major split on a security issue since the Suez crisis of 1956. European governments are against arming the Muslims for very good reasons. The injustice of the present arms embargo is obvious. It strongly favours the Serbs, who have ample weapons of their own. Perhaps it should never have been imposed. But lifting it now would make matters worse. Two months, at least, would be needed to supply and train the Muslims, during which time the Serbs would redouble their efforts. Serbs are eager to fight Muslims, whom they regard as inferior Slav renegades.

Eventually, the Muslims would go on the offensive in search of revenge. The Croats would also acquire more weapons and attack both Serbs and Muslims. The Russians might start supplying the Serbs. Any hope of exerting Western influence on the situation would be lost. The war would probably spread.

The stage has now been reached where the only thing that will impress the Serbs is direct experience of Western military power. They must be weakened, not the Muslims strengthened. This will be attempted by means of the blockade of Serbia due to start next week, which will almost certainly prove insufficient. Air strikes against Serb supply lines and fuel dumps will then become unavoidable if anything useful is to be achieved. Serbian assistance to the Bosnian Serbs is a crucial factor in the war.

But the prospect of direct intervention by Nato ground forces looms closer. Every chance of putting out the fire in its early stages was lost, and the Vance- Owen plan is probably doomed, so Western leaders must now take hard decisions on more costly action. They are too deeply involved to pull out without doing huge damage to their own credibility and that of the international order they claim to represent, not to mention the suffering people of Bosnia.

Experts such as Chris Cviic and Colonel Edward Cowan propose a protectorate imposed by UN forces that would take over communications, utilities and borders. The forces would remain a decade or more to rebuild a multi-ethnic democratic state. This is an audacious and costly plan, but at least it recognises there is now little room for choice between total engagement and total withdrawal. That is the price of two years of vacillation. Mr Clinton should abandon his search for a cheap way of placating public opinion and face bleak reality.