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Speaking softly to the Serbs

Until Monday, the NATO community's words had spoken much louder than its actions on the subject of Bosnia. After American F-16 fighters finally backed up one of NATO's threats by shooting down four Serb warplanes violating the no-fly zone over Bosnia, though, President Clinton and other Western leaders wisely resisted the urge to indulge in bellicose talk.

By downplaying this historic use of NATO firepower, the president and his colleagues gave Serb leaders some room to back off gracefully. And by continuing to concentrate on the prospects for peace rather than the chances of a broader war, they prevented this incident from knocking negotiations off track _ for now, at least.

In fact, the most significant development in the aftermath of Monday's one-sided dogfight was the news that Bosnia's Muslim and Croat leaders had agreed on the framework for setting up a federation in the troubled region. The surprisingly rapid progress of those negotiations is the most encouraging sign yet that Bosnia's warring factions may finally be ready to reconcile.

The world can only hope that the Bosnian Serbs will react rationally to the changed equation that now confronts them. Until now, they have been able to take advantage of Muslim-Croat fighting in other parts of Bosnia; now they face the prospect of a united Muslim-Croat front. They also have been provided with vivid evidence that they no longer can violate NATO edicts with impunity.

That's why the Clinton administration and other Western governments are trying to avoid saying or doing anything that will provoke the Serbs into an irrational military retaliation. Instead, they are still offering the Serbs a chance to make peace from a position of relative strength. If the Serbs grab it, NATO's risky show of force will have worked brilliantly, if belatedly.

But if the Serbs insist on dragging the United States and the rest of NATO further into this war, they can still make things terribly messy. NATO has shown that it can easily control the air over Bosnia. Now that they've gone this far, though, the NATO governments could still find themselves in a terrible dilemma if the Serbs choose to escalate the war on the ground, where the cost of victory would be much greater than it was Monday.