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A Lesson in Shame

8 minute read
James O. Jackson/Bonn

The tragedy of Bosnia could hardly have been summarized more chillingly, or by one who bears more responsibility for it. “I think we are on the threshold of the final solution,” said Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia and architect of ethnic cleansing. “The main remaining question is the question of maps.”

No, not maps, even though Bosnia’s Muslim, Croat and Serb leaders are set to talk once again this week of drawing up separate zones. The main question, and one that will torment the West for years to come, is the question of people, perhaps even the question of genocide. Milosevic’s “final solution” is a wrenching dismemberment of Bosnia conceded to him by inept Western policy that will involve the largest dislocation of Europeans since World War II. Two million Serbs, Croats and Muslims are to be shoved around as the multiethnic country is rearranged along ethnic lines. More than 1.5 million Bosnian Muslims are to be jammed into wretched “safe areas” that will resemble, at best, the Gaza Strip or, at worst, the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. The Muslim enclaves drawn on Milosevic’s map will depend for survival on the power of the West and the mercy of the Serbs and Croats — qualities in desperately short supply. Analysts are fearful of further attempts to drive the Muslims out by strangling their havens. “It would be another horrible chapter of genocide, in some ways worse than what has already happened,” warns Bo Huldt, the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Bosnia has come to this sorry pass because of “an absence of European political courage,” says France’s Bernard Kouchner, a former Minister for Health and Humanitarian Action. “In the heart of Europe we have let Bosnian Muslims die. We will be reproached eternally for that.”

If it is now impossible to rescue Bosnia, there are lessons to be learned that could help prevent a repeat of the blundering and pusillanimity that permitted the dismemberment. “The Bosnians are appalled at the weakness of the democracies,” says Albert Wohlstetter, a historian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, who has taken up the cause of Bosnia in a series of scathing articles that castigate the West for flaccid leadership and incompetent diplomacy. He argues that virtually every Western initiative in the former Yugoslavia was wrongheaded, making matters steadily worse by rewarding aggression and punishing its victims. The West, he says, had no strategic vision for the Balkans except to avoid a quagmire. “We’re sinking deeper into the bog bit by bit without any clear policy and without any focused goals in mind,” he says. “This is the quagmire.”

Wohlstetter’s harsh conclusions are shared by other analysts in Europe and the U.S. who are calling for a new kind of leadership to deal with post-cold war crises. The main lesson is that with the danger of nuclear escalation greatly diminished, the likelihood of local wars is increased, and not only in the former Soviet bloc. Another is that West Europeans must recognize that their security cannot be guaranteed separately from the eastern half of the continent. Military alliances and other cooperative structures such as the E.C. must be made to reach at least as far as the former Soviet Union and perhaps all the way to the Urals. “It is in Central Europe,” says Jacques Rupnik, an analyst at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies, “that the security of Europe will be at stake.”

A third lesson is that military power is like a loaded gun: never aim it at anybody unless you are prepared to shoot. European and American failures to follow through on threats of force merely emboldened the Serbs. “Bosnia was an American failure,” contends Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Unless the U.S. is willing to take decisive action you are not going to get anything done. Milosevic’s contempt for U.S. policy in general and for Clinton in particular is well known.”

The mistakes that brought the world to the Balkan disaster can be traced back to the death in 1980 of Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito and beyond. As the pressure for a looser confederation rose in Slovenia and Croatia, the West did virtually nothing to engineer a peaceful solution. In June 1991, James Baker, the Bush Administration’s Secretary of State, told Milosevic that the U.S. supported “the unity and territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia. It was a statement made as much with the Soviet Union in mind as with the Balkans, but it gave Belgrade an excuse to send the Serb-dominated federal army into Slovenia and then Croatia to prevent their secession.

If the Western democracies recognized independent Slovenia and Croatia too late, they probably should never have recognized Bosnia at all, or at least not without credible guarantees of its security. “The recognition of Bosnia was not accompanied by any warning that if war proceeded, it would be followed by serious consequences,” says Glynn. So the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia proper, declared their own independence from Bosnia and together with the Croats launched the land-grabbing civil war they are on the verge of winning.

At the start of that conflict the West made what must be seen as the most foolish error of the entire fiasco: it declared an arms embargo covering the entire region. Rather than blocking sales only to the Serbs, the U.N. Security Council slapped the ban on Croatia and hapless Bosnia as well. Since the Bosnian Serbs held a host of heavy weapons left behind by the Yugoslav army — and had access to plenty more from Serbia — that amounted to an embargo on the victim, not the aggressor. “The decisive mistake was in not understanding the character of nationalist movements in Yugoslavia,” says Milovan Djilas, an erstwhile Tito comrade turned celebrated dissident. “Those movements didn’t understand normal arguments, just the use of fear and force.”

The clinching failure by the West was its belief that it could influence without becoming involved — and then threaten force but not use it. Bill Clinton entered office after campaigning to get tough in the Balkans. In April he went so far as to promise to use air power against Serbian gun positions. But the threat of force wilted in May with the ill-fated European tour of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who could not — some say would not — persuade the European Community to follow the American lead. Last week Christopher essentially ruled out using force at all to stave off the fall of Sarajevo or otherwise come to the rescue of the Muslims, saying the U.S. had done all it could in Bosnia.

There are those who argue that some of the ethnic cleansing that has put hundreds of thousands of Bosnians to flight can be undone — and can be prevented from happening again. Wohlstetter and others contend that Washington has been too quick to abandon its option of “lift and strike” — lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims and strike at mainly Serbian heavy weapons with aircraft and limited ground forces. But it may be too late for that, with Sarajevo on the verge of defeat. In any case, the lift option is vehemently opposed by all of Europe except Germany.

There is still time, however, for action to prevent a larger Balkan war. “One option is containment in a southern direction,” says Zalmay Khalilzad, director of strategic doctrine at the Rand Corp. “If the Serbs win in Bosnia, the prospect of the war spreading increases.” He calls for more energetic involvement in Macedonia, where the U.S. has deployed a token force of 300 soldiers to join a Nordic battalion already in place. So small a unit is nothing more than a “trip wire,” a warning to would-be aggressors that an attack would bring in much greater U.S. military power.

But even that concept has been undermined. U.N. forces deployed in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia became not peacekeepers or peacemakers or even trip wires, but unwilling accomplices to Serbian aggression. One of the main reasons France and Britain argued against Western air strikes was fear that their lightly armed U.N. contingents would suffer retaliation. “The blue- helmet forces were a terrible mistake,” says Lothar Altmann, an analyst on Central European affairs at Munich’s Sud-Ost Institute. “They were sent there as an alternative to taking military action, but once there, they became hostages whose presence made military action impossible.” For that reason, he says, “the West must make it clear that the forces in Macedonia can both defend themselves and protect the security of Macedonia as a state. Otherwise it will turn into another mistake.”

One lesson the West has clearly learned — albeit belatedly — is that many of the new nationalists are not the freedom-fighting variety of 19th century romance or of cold war fiction, but tribal gangsters epitomized by Milosevic and his Croatian opposite number, Franjo Tudjman. They can, and will, pop up anywhere in the world, in the lands emerging from the coma of communism as well as those caught in the mire of Third World poverty. It is a vital interest of the democracies to detect, contain and extinguish the fires before they explode into new, bigger and even deadlier Bosnias. If they can learn that lesson, then the suffering of Bosnia may not have been totally in vain, and the demons unleashed in the wake of the cold war may yet be exorcised.

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