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Although the Clinton-NATO ultimatum on Bosnia has led to a Serb pullback from Gorazde, it has put compassion on a collision course with reality.

While the United States and Russia pledged to strive for a diplomatic solution to the war, that solution must recognize the Serbs' supremacy on the battlefield.

Spreading the protective wing of NATO airpower over the Muslim enclaves has, as of this writing, ended the slaughter at Gorazde, as it did at Sarajevo.

But the move is strategically and militarily irrelevant. A Serb ceasefire will not change the fact that the Serbs, in a well-planned and executed strategy, have "cleansed" eastern Bosnia of their Muslim enemies. The Serbs drove the Muslims from their land and penned them in valley towns surrounded by Serb-controlled mountains.

Gorazde and the other towns where the Muslims cluster are called "safe havens" but really are prisoner-of-war camps. The Muslims depend on humanitarian aid delivered by U.N. forces. But to provide it, the poorly armed blue helmets must negotiate passage with the Serbs.

Even under air attacks, the Serbs can impede, even stop, substantial aid from reaching the "safe havens." There is no need for the Serbs to capture the isolated towns. Sooner or later, the difficulty of sustaining the aid will make it necessary to evacuate the Muslims to Muslim territory farther West.

The sooner this deal can be struck, the better. Air attacks won't help.

The Serbs are canny fighters. They can disperse and hide heavy weapons. Supply dumps and command posts can be hidden or located near cultural -- churches or museums -- or civilian sites, which are off-limits to bombing.

The Serbs can also strike back. Anti-aircraft ambushes can be expected in the mountains, and aircraft will be shot down, as a British Harrier was.

The harder the Serbs are hit from the air, the more they will have an incentive to retaliate against U.N. soldiers on the ground.

Despite Clinton's disclaimers, U.N. and NATO losses in the air and on the ground might well create an irresistible impulse to introduce ground combat forces. We could end up in the very war we have sought to avoid.

Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher both indicated that airstrikes are intended to inflict pain on the Serbs in order to bring them to their senses. History tells us such thinking is a pipe dream. Since the advent of air power, bombing alone has only stiffened the resolve of a resolute enemy. Misapplication of force can be worse than no force at all. Not only is an air campaign likely to be ineffective, it is bound to raise the Muslims' hopes that NATO, the United Nations and United States will join the fray in their behalf.

Having suffered and lost so much, they are unlikely to negotiate a settlement based on the status quo if they think the international community will enter the war on their side, especially if Clinton's proposal to lift the arms embargo comes to pass. It is a certain prescription for a longer and bloodier civil war.

The best we can hope is to convince the Serbs to settle for their gains and to press the Bosnians to accept defeat. Allied energies should focus on that goal, not prolonging the agony with bombing.

The argument that the United Nations, NATO and United States lose credibility in proportion to the size of a Serb victory is nonsense. The Persian Gulf War is ample evidence of credibility when military action stands a chance of success. That is not the case in Bosnia.

BERNARD E. TRAINOR, a retired Marine general, is director of national security programs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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