In Chechnya, a Caution for Bosnia Hawks : Superior air power doesn't work magic, and unleashing it erodes a nation's moral base.

Jonathan Clarke, a member of the British diplomatic service for 20 years, is now at the Cato Institute in Washington.

"War is hell," Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once told a group of graduating cadets. The pictures of the Russian onslaught against Chechnya have surely brought home this message for anyone who may have forgotten it. Burnt-out apartment houses, children cowering in basements, bodies in the streets--all the images of war as hell once again parade before our eyes.

The horror of war is, of course, a cheap lesson for outsiders to learn, but those of us who watch Chechnya from afar must do more than wring our hands; we have a duty to reflect on our own behavior. Although it may come as little consolation to the Chechen people, their suffering may serve as an object lesson that will cool the hot heads in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere who seem intent on embroiling this country in a widened Yugoslav conflict.

One by one, events in Chechnya have demolished each and every assertion made by those who favor abandoning the diplomatic track over Bosnia.

Start with the alleged magic wand of air power: As Russian bombers unloaded their deadly cargo over Grozny, what was the West's reaction? Quite rightly, senior Administration officials publicly questioned Russian tactics; European Union officials raised an official protest in Moscow.

The Russians enjoy absolute air superiority over Chechnya and possess precision-guided munitions equal to those in the West. With these advantages, has Russian air power been successful, either in avoiding civilian casualties or in producing a Chechen surrender? Far from it. The Chechen people, far from waving a white flag, are all the more determined to continue their struggle--whether now in the streets or later in the mountains.

Those who advocate American air strikes on Serb cities like Pale or Belgrade say that these would eliminate the need to deploy ground troops except as peacekeepers once the war is won. The ghastly experience of Russian soldiers incinerated inside their tanks exposes the hollowness of this idea. People who are fighting for their country--as the Chechens and all sides in Bosnia believe they are doing--do not give up without the most ferocious man-to-man fight.

The pro-war lobby has alleged that the Bosnian Serbs are no more than tipsy amateurs who will crumple at the first sign of Western muscle. The Russians went into the Chechen war with similar self-serving illusions that the Chechens were merely gangsters and desperadoes. Like many before them, the Russians are now feeling the pain of underestimating an opponent.

What of the proposal to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia to "level the playing field," a decision that the Senate wishes to force on the President by May? Chechnya does not suggest that this is sensible. The Chechens are hopelessly outgunned but have stood their ground. More weapons would simply make the fight bloodier, as the Russians or the Serbs bring additional supplies into the theater. In ethnic war, availability of weapons is not the core problem; the incompatibility of rival population groups is. The Russians are learning that to solve this demands the skills of a mediator, not a gunsmith.

There will be some who argue that superior technology or tactics would allow Western operations in Bosnia to avoid repeating Russia's travails in Chechnya. Maybe so, although Mogadishu is not an encouraging precedent.

But the most compelling lesson from Chechnya does not lie in the technical sphere; it is moral. The Russian actions have caused the government in Moscow to lose its moral basis. Confidence in Boris Yeltsin, in the Parliament and the army, among the Russian people and his supporters overseas, has evaporated.

If put into effect, proposals to widen U.S. involvement in Bosnia will lead in the same direction of undermining the moral basis of U.S. foreign policy--not necessarily immediately but with equal inevitability. TV pictures of civilian casualties in Bosnia or Serbia caused by American bombs for disputed reasons and with minimal prospects of achieving success would ignite a fireball of moral outrage among the American people who see no American interest in Bosnia. The American leadership would face a familiar dilemma: Press ahead with an unpopular war or retreat with American credibility in tatters. Once again, a foreign war would tear the country apart.

Russian actions in Chechnya--ill-advised and incompetently executed as they are--have this one small virtue: They are reteaching us Sherman's lesson free of charge before a single pilot or G.I. is lost in Bosnia. Unless the West is willing to enter hell, we should abandon talk of war in Bosnia and put all our efforts behind the hard graft of diplomacy.

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