• U.S.

Doesn’t Anybody Want Peace?

7 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

Peacekeepers in Bosnia watched as two fighter-bombers took off from Udbina, in an area of Croatia controlled by Serbs. A few minutes later other U.N. military observers saw two jet planes roar low near the town of Bihac, a mainly Muslim “safe zone” theoretically under U.N. protection in Bosnia’s northwest corner. “After they arrived,” a U.N. spokesman reported, “two loud explosions were heard.” Military monitors went to inspect and found fragments from cluster bombs and, in the U.N.’s view, for the first time in the war, napalm. Fighting worsened the next day as Serbian jets from Udbina bombed and strafed the center of the nearby town of Cazin.

On Saturday the U.N. Security Council voted to permit NATO air strikes into Croatia, forcing NATO officials to confer nervously on how to put the resolution into effect. The escalating warfare could not have come at a worse time for the NATO allies and the members of the five-nation contact group that has been working on a plan to partition the country. Mired in their own disagreements over how to end the war, almost anything they might try seemed likely to add to the tensions. The Europeans, especially the French, are outraged at the U.S. decision to stop enforcing the international arms embargo on Bosnia, and they complained aloud over what unpleasant surprises might issue from Washington next.

Less than a month ago, the news from the government-controlled enclave of Bihac had lent hope to the diplomats trying to negotiate an end to the 31- month-old war. After a period of training and refitting with weapons smuggled in from Croatia, a reinvigorated Bosnian army conducted sharp, sustained attacks and was driving the rebel Serbs back from the Bihac area and several towns in central Bosnia. Even Yasushi Akashi, the U.N.’s very cautious representative in the former Yugoslavia, speculated that the Bosnian Serbs’ unexpected losses of territory might push them to return to the negotiating table.

) Such hopes, always frail, evaporated last week. They have been replaced by fear of a wider war, one that may bring the national army of Croatia back into the battle against the Serbs. The fighting around Bihac exemplifies the ethnic confusion of Bosnia. Bihac is surrounded by Serbs, but because it sits at what is now an international border, the Serbs to the north and west — self- proclaimed rulers of the Krajina region — are in Croatia, while the ones to the east and south are in Bosnia.

As the two groups coordinated their attack, the Serbs recovered all the territory they had lost and could probably overrun the town of 60,000 and its government defenders. If the Serbs were to take Bihac, they would forge a more solid link between their holdings in Bosnia and Krajina across the border in Croatia. The threat of such a consolidated Serb ministate reaching into Croatia could then set off a counterattack by the Croatian army. “The Croats are very nervous,” says a senior U.S. official. “There’s a war party in Zagreb that would like nothing better than an excuse to fight.”

To complete the confusion, rebel Muslims have also joined the Bihac fray. Armed followers of renegade Muslim businessman Fikret Abdic were driven out of Bihac last summer and took refuge in camps in Croatia. Last week, rearmed by the Croat Serbs and given covering fire from artillery and missiles, some 5,000 of the rebel Muslims charged back across the border to surround their former base at Velika Kladusa. Another group of rebels attacked toward Bihac from the west.

The U.S. first reacted by pressing for a U.N. declaration banning heavy weapons from a 6-mile radius of the safe area. After a series of meetings in Western capitals, the allies were unable to agree on how to proceed. The contact group met in London but could find no common stance. Said a U.N. representative: “They see no way forward.”

“We can’t let this just drift along,” said a worried American official. “We have to do something.” But that refrain has been heard before, and the outlook for action this time seems less promising than ever. European allies are balky and fuming about Washington’s decision two weeks ago to stop enforcing the arms embargo. Paris and London are talking in dire terms about the disunity the step implies for the future of NATO. “There is a fear everywhere in Europe,” says Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, “that we may end up with a NATO that will not be meaningful because of the unreliability of the most important member state.”

The French in particular have been pumping up the volume. “What are we trying to wage, war or peace?” demanded Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. He warned that an “eating away” of the arms embargo would intensify the fighting, endanger French peacekeeping troops and force their withdrawal — which might even require U.S. military help. British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind soothingly said the operational effect of Washington’s decision was almost nil.

That is true because most arms shipments to Bosnia are not arriving from across the Adriatic, where U.S. warships were patrolling, but from Croatia. American officials complained that the French were inflating the issue to pursue their old objective of edging Washington out of European defense councils. The U.S. officials point out that Congress forced the measure on the Administration four months ago and that any well-run embassy should have warned its government what was coming.

Washington’s objections are fair, but they ignore the psychological impact that breaking ranks on the embargo has had in Europe. Press commentaries in Britain and France had trouble distinguishing between a decision to stop using U.S. ships and planes to enforce the embargo, which has been made, and a decision to break the embargo, which has not.

The European allies can be excused for assuming that Washington’s recent announcement on the arms embargo will not be its last. Even under Democratic control, the Congress has been pressing President Clinton to lift it — if necessary, unilaterally and in defiance of Security Council resolutions. With the Republicans taking over on Capitol Hill in January, the pressure could grow irresistible. Senator Bob Dole wrote to Clinton last week saying “enough is enough” in Bosnia and calling for “decisive action.”

As required by the same law that ended enforcement of the embargo, Pentagon and State Department officials last week briefed Congress on options that members could consider if Washington does decide to violate the embargo and effectively side with the Bosnian government. The briefings were secret, but participants said a so-called heavy option would provide Bosnia with up to $5 billion in weapons, aid and training, while a light version would involve $500 million in hardware.

Included in those briefings, Administration spokesmen said, were firm warnings to the lawmakers that a decision to ignore the embargo “would have a potential negative effect” and could wreck the peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts in Bosnia. That is an understatement. It could shatter the unity of the NATO alliance in precisely the way many Europeans feared last week.

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