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WOULD BOSNIA BE LIKE VIETNAM?

The Vietnam Syndrome lives - an inescapable conclusion when Gen. Colin Powell, reputedly a ranking gravedigger of the paralyzing malady, himself suffers from it.

Regarding the widely advocated idea of jet-bombing the outlaw Serbian artillery units pounding civilians in Sarajevo, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman offered this curiously muddled view:"As soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me `surgical,' I head for the bunker."

From a brave man, words tinged with dread. One can almost see Powell having a daytime nightmare: the U.S. military sinking into a quicksand pit marked "Vietslavia."

Powell evidently believes that U.S. forces should become involved only in set-piece Desert Storm-style conflicts, where America's technological might can be marshalled, or in Panama-like invasions, where crack troops can overwhelm an outnumbered enemy. Alas, the Powell Doctrine effectively means that a fair number of the world's villains enjoy geographic immunity from the credible threat of U.S. force.

Parallels between Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia are not frivolous. The heirs of Marshal Tito's partisans may be as tenacious as Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas. The terrains of both countries are daunting. Telling friend from foe could prove as difficult in Bosnia as in the Mekong.

Yet America and the civilized world have a substantive interest in detering Serbian butchery. Armed intervention, if chosen, can be circumspect and reversible.

There is no reason, for example, that bombers must harbinger infantry divisions. The nation spends billions annually for an all-purpose military machine; generals don't get to pick just the types of warfare they find agreeable.

With U.S. pushing, the United Nations has resolved to investigate Serbian war crimes. Washington should also set about lifting the arms ban to slaughter-marked Bosnians. And there is a strong case for selective air bombardment, which shouldn't be vetoed by Viet Cong apparitions.