GINGRICH'S PROPOSAL TO BOMB BOSNIA IS SIMPLY A BAD IDEA

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

Now Newt Gingrich has lost his head over Bosnia, too. Not content to let Bob Dole lead the charge of the light brigade into Balkan oblivion, Gingrich has turned hawk. He once took the hands-off view that Bosnia is a European problem. Now he not only sees it as an American problem but he has a three-point program to solve it.

Step 1: Get the U.N. protection forces out of Bosnia. A nice idea that will then allow us to wage war with great gusto, relieved of the worry of hitting U.N. soldier-hostages.But a few questions intrude. Who feeds the starving and besieged in Srebenica, Gorazde and the other Muslim enclaves after the British and French and other U.N. soldiers leave? Who keeps these enclaves from being overrun and their populations massacred? Who keeps CNN-rich Sarajevo alive when the United Nations leaves and water, power and food are cut off?

Answer: No one, or American ground troops.

Step 2: Arm the Muslims. Another nice idea, three years too late. Who is going to stop the Russians from flooding the Serbs with weapons once the arms embargo is broken? For that matter, who is going to stop the Russians, the French and anybody else from arming Iraq and Libya and other outlaw states once we have shown that Great Powers can pick and choose embargoes?

And, most important, what happens to the Muslims in the months it will take to arm and train them? The Serbs are certainly not going to sit idly by while their enemies are prepared for battle. They will launch a pre-emptive offensive that will cost thousands more lives and perhaps extinguish Bosnia for good. Who will prevent that?

Which brings us to Step 3: We will. Massive American air strikes - why, just the threat - will stop the Serbs cold. This faith in air power is touching considering that 40 days of intensive bombing could not get Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait; it took a ground invasion to do that. Yet Gingrich figures three to five days in Bosnia ought to do the trick.

And bomb what? Serbia? Belgrade certainly helped start this war but for months it has cut off the Bosnian Serbs and urged them to accept the Western peace plan. Oh, it would be lovely to blast Belgrade. But what is the logic of bombing the one Serb party that is pushing for a peaceful settlement?

Who then to bomb? Why, the Bosnian Serbs. Gingrich would "paralyze (their) capacity to function as a society." Problem is, they are not a functioning society in the first place. They are a scattered, agrarian population whose economy, hardly robust to begin with, has ground to near zero. What do we do? Turn out the lights in downtown Pale?

The Gingrich bombing plan is classic post-Vietnam strategy: intervention on the cheap. No ground troops, no risk, short time span, large effects. From beginning to end, this is childish fantasy. As with all intervention-on-the-cheap schemes, the idea is that as long as we stay in the air, there are no risks. Nonsense. Once we Americanize the war, the risks are exclusively ours.

Once we order out the United Nations, we assume responsibility for the Bosnian civilians. Once we arm the Muslims, we assume re-spon-si-bil-ity for the conduct of the war. And once we begin air strikes, we become a combatant.

At which point, we are where we were in Vietnam, 1964, when we gratuitously made it our war and committed ourselves to one side in an unwinnable situation. The only alternative then is the agony of a ground war or the humiliation of an abrupt exit.

Moreover, the Gingrich war path is not just bad foreign policy. It is bad domestic policy. It is never a good idea for Congress to run American foreign policy. It was not a good idea when the Democratic Congress tried to shred Reagan's in the 1980s. It is not a good idea for the Republican Congress to stage-manage Clinton's today.

Furthermore, regarding Central America in the '80s, the Democrats were simply trying to block an activist White House. The Republicans are more ambitious. They are trying to foist an activist Balkan policy on a passive administration.

That is far more tricky and far more dangerous because, in the end, it is the executive that has to carry out the policy. Do we want a war policy run by an administration that is both unwilling and incompetent to undertake it? Do we really want Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville running a Balkan war, with NATO, Russia and the fate of southern Europe in the balance?

Finally, apart from all else, this is bad politics. This whole venture into foreign policy is a huge, needless distraction for the Republicans. They were not elected on Nov. 8 to save Bosnia, which is beyond saving. They were elected to fix America, which is, as yet, not beyond fixing.

Their mandate to govern was won on a domestic agenda. There is a window now open for the Republicans to enact it. To squander that opportunity on foreign adventures - and on an adventure that promises the country nothing but grief - is simply crazy.

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