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Those in Balkans war watchful of U.S. actions in Somalia

Nowhere is the American-led U.N. action to punish and neutralize Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Somalia being watched more closely than in Belgrade and Zagreb, not to mention Pale and Sarajevo.

What the Serbs and Croats have had to ask themselves is whether this action in Somalia could be a step toward tougher international action against them.

Each time some American action against the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia has seemed a possibility, both the Serbian government in Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs in their "capital" of Pale have suddenly talked conciliation.

Each time the threat has disappeared in the usual welter of division and hypocrisy in which the United States and Europe try to blame each other, the aggression has continued unabated.

Croats have learned that they have nothing to fear either and have joined in the scramble for land and loot. In Geneva this week, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman joined Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to propose dividing Bosnia between them, leaving the Muslims with as little land as possible.

Having been abandoned by the international community, the Muslims and their government in Sarajevo have begun to fight just as dirty, but it is uncertain whether they will be able to withstand a deal that at first sight looks as if it confirms the military status on the ground and thus rewards aggression from both sides.

That the Serbs probably aren't too worried by Somalia was reflected in their renewed attacks on Gorazde and Sarajevo, two of the cities so pitifully declared as "safe havens" by the U.N. Security Council.

Nevertheless, seeing the United States and United Nations actually take some action in Somalia has to make Belgrade and Zagreb pay a little attention. If the operation succeeds in breaking Aidid, it will mark a new step in U.N. action, and they will pay a lot more. But if the United States and United Nations can't even stop an African warlord with a fairly lightly armed gang of thugs, then what has anyone else got to fear?

Ironically, Aidid and other African warlords like Charles Taylor in Liberia and Jonas Savimbi in Angola, to mention only a couple, may themselves have been encouraged by the failure of the international community, first of all the United States, to act against the genocide in Bosnia. So may have the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Questions:

Can the United States and the United Nations gear themselves to intervene effectively only when the West's "vital interests," that is oil, are in jeopardy? Or intervene only against some Third World warlord without an organized army?

Beyond that, is the difference between Somalia and Bosnia just another example of the weakness of democracies in peacetime?

We, the people, don't want to hear bad news, don't want to be bothered, don't want to be dragged out in the middle of the night for a posse to chase desperadoes who have robbed somebody else's bank in the next country or county.

If we can leave the bills to our children and grandchildren, we don't want to pay taxes either.

Dictatorships, it can be argued, are far more efficient, unafflicted as they are by public opinion and the kind of gridlock we are again seeing in Washington.

Democracies have risen to the occasion to win two world wars in this century and face down the challenge of Soviet Communism. But nothing guarantees it will always be so.

The war in the former Yugoslavia will soon enter its third year. Like guilty children, the Serbs at first looked over their shoulders waiting for someone to stop them. When nobody did, they turned into monsters.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher seems to be saying we can't do more where American "vital interests" aren't as concerned as they were in the gulf war.

If that's his judgment, he isn't fit for his job. Nothing is more of a vital American interest than the stability of Europe, which is threatened by the carving up of Bosnia by force.

In Copenhagen next week, the leaders of the 12 European Community countries will be struggling to save European unity. The threat from Bosnia is that the destructive nationalisms unopposed there could spread to the nice neighborhoods of Western Europe, rather than their democracy, unity and prosperity spreading east.

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