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Europe can huff and puff as much as it wants over American policy on Bosnia, or the lack of it. But Europe's carping isn't going to change a thing.

To average Americans (and nobody should exaggerate the conflict's place in the U.S. media's consciousness), Bosnia is a human tragedy of Europe's making. The lines of exhausted refugees and the tears of the bereaved are thought to be on Europe's conscience, not theirs.On that, they are right. This is a mess that cannot be dumped on Washington's doorstep.

The U.S. may be simple-minded in its view of Serbia as the sole progenitor of this disaster. It may muddle the picture, as now, with its efforts to influence the course of the war through the Croatians. But it is not wrong to step back from direct involvement.

It's time that Europe grew out of the Cold War mind-set of always assuming either that America is behind every international trouble or that it is there to resolve all of them.

It's time, too, that the rest of the world began to understand the context of U.S. international relations. Of all major powers in history, America has been unique in its combination of high morality and brute military power. It's easy to ridicule the morality or to dismiss it as sanctimonious cover for the brute power.

But in many ways it is the ethical part that is most genuinely American. The instinctive sense of what is right, and, even more important, of what is wrong, is what moves public opinion. If it were not for that, Washington would probably not be worrying about Bosnia at all.

On the other hand, public opinion feels (and more so after the end of the Cold War) that American power is there to be used on behalf of direct American interests. Bosnia isn't a direct American interest, so why should U.S. servicemen lose their lives for it?

This duality of policy - what Fareed Zakaria of the Washington publication Foreign Affairs has called the pull between foreign policy based on America's moral role in the world in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and the pragmatic pursuit of American interest represented by Theodore Roosevelt - has always been more important than the conventional view of an America torn between isolationism and in-ter-na-tion-al-ism.

It is not, and never has been, an either/or question, but a constant rebalancing between the two. At its most effective - during World War II, at various points in the Cold War and in the Gulf War - the two have been combined. Then, for better or worse, America has proved to be all-powerful.

At its weakest, however, presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have found themselves stranded between the two. Bosnia is such a case.

Perhaps under another president, the White House would be more decisive in intervening or refusing to do so. There have been few U.S. administrations quite so bereft of foreign purpose as this one. There could be few statements quite so wrong-headed as President Clinton's argument that Croatia was justified in launching war in Krajina because of the Serb attacks on Bihac in Bosnia.

But it is not easy in the case of Bosnia to see how any administration could manage to balance the pressures for intervention against the fear of involvement.

On the lines of Teddy Roosevelt ("The most important service that I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet around the world"), America has clear interests in ensuring that the conflict does not spread - bringing in Russia, involving Greece and endangering the NATO alliance. The U.S already has troops on the ground in Macedonia.

Instead of being urged by its allies to get more involved with the war, the United States should actually be encouraged to step back from this involvement and to throw a cordon sanitaire around the former Yugoslavia.

Whatever Europe's entanglement, it would not be in its interests to see America and Russia fall out over Bosnia, or to see America dragged into this war on one side.

Hard though it may be for Europe to recognize, America's primary importance is as an ally in NATO and as the single remaining superpower. Bosnia is important, but not at the cost of breaking the alliance.

The people of America don't want to see dead Marines being brought back from Bosnia. Neither, if they are wise, should Europeans.