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Bosnia-Herzegovina covers about half the area of Kentucky, and its population is about equal to Missouri's. In the past three years, the ethnic strife in this tiny land has commanded the attention of the world.

What is it about this young nation in southeastern Europe that has world watchers fearing an escalation of a war that might draw in other Balkan nations?

Bosnia's troubles are common to nations with antagonistic ethnic and religious groups that compete for political power. About 44 percent of the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslavia, is Muslim, 31 percent is Serbian and 17 percent is Croatian. Among the non-Muslim population, about 31 percent are Orthodox Christian -- the Serbs -- and about 15 percent are Catholic.

Americans tend to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward their neighbors' religious beliefs and ethnic heritage. Not Bosnians. The ethnic and religious war there has raged for centuries.

After the Soviet Union's dissolution, the former Yugoslavia was one of several nations in Eastern Europe that declared its independence. But the ethnic Serbs' opposition to the nation's 1992 referendum for independence spurred violence. After the United States and the European Union recognized the republic in April 1992, fierce three-way fighting continued between Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Serb forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims and began their ethnic purge of Muslims and other non-Serbs from areas the Serbs conquered.

Enter the United Nations, which sought to end much of the killing by imposing an arms embargo on the Bosnian government. The embargo reduced the deaths, and in 1994, the United Nations helped negotiate a cease-fire and a Muslim-Croat confederation. But the cease-fire failed, and the Serbs continued their ethnic cleansing, all the time crushing the out-gunned Bosnian government troops and U.N. peacekeepers.

The Serbs now control more than 70 percent of the nation, retreating only recently under armed Croatian troops coming to the aid of their Bosnian government neighbors. The dominant Serbs' have no reason to embrace an international peace plan that would cede 49 percent of a partitioned Bosnia to the Serbs and 51 percent to the Muslim-Croat confederation.

The U.N.'s response to this crisis has been dismal. Not until Croatia sent in troops did the Serb advance meet with so much as a blip of resistance. But the complexion of the Bosnian conflict could soon change. Rejecting a veto threat -- and the warning that it would Americanize the war -- Congress on Tuesday approved legislation to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia so the Muslim-led government can better defend itself.

The U.S. response is an improvement over the Bosnia policy of President Clinton. Still the president threatens to keep the embargo through his veto power. He reasons that the arms embargo has reduced the death toll in Bosnia -- primarily by ensuring that the killing is one-sided in favor of the Serbs -- so there is no need now to lift the embargo and risk a Bosnian bloodbath. Such incoherence passes as foreign policy. But it is an impotent policy of fretful inaction, and for the first time in 50 years, the world lacks a moral superpower to call upon to settle international conflicts.

Congress's action won't in one stroke restore America's luster in the eyes of the world. But it is a necessary step toward clarifying a murky foreign policy under President Clinton.