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Is America Marching to Folly Once Again? : Yugoslavia: Stories of atrocities coming out of Bosnia have given NATO's future a second wind. But Bush should let old alliances die.

August 09, 1992|Christopher Layne | Christopher Layne teaches international politics at UCLA and is a fellow at the Cato Institute

Coupled with suspension of relief flights to Sarajevo, allegations of Serbian death camps have strengthened demands that the United States, in conjunction with NATO and the United Nations, militarily intervene to stop the killing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is simply illusory to think that such intervention can be limited to surgical air strikes and a naval blockade.

The events in Bosnia-Herzegovina are heartbreaking, to be sure, but they do not justify going to war. International politics is not a morality play. As such, U.S. foreign policy must be driven by considerations of interest and security, not by idealism and sentimentality.

Bosnia has become a litmus test of the viability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead of writing off the alliance as a Cold War relic, the U.S. foreign-policy Establishment has proposed myriad new rationales to justify perpetuating it. The most popular is that NATO's mission, adopted in June, must be to protect Europe from the threat of "uncertainty, instability and danger" arising from the national and ethnic antagonisms in the Balkans, East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Nasty and bloody though they may be, post-Cold War conflicts in such places do not involve important balance-of-power concerns that have traditionally underpinned America's European policy. As originally conceived, NATO reflected the historic U.S. preoccupation with preventing a single great power--after 1945, the Soviet Union--from dominating Europe and mobilizing the Continent's resources to threaten the United States.

Today's Balkan crisis has no balance-of-power ramifications. Nevertheless, U.S. interventionists have marshaled a host of reasons to justify their position, invoking the ghost of appeasement and the specter of an Islamic-Christian war. But the crisis in Yugoslavia bears no resemblance to the 1930s. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic is no Adolf Hitler. And if the West stays out of this conflict, the result will not be a renewal of the Crusades or a new siege of Vienna. Dominoes may topple on editorial pages, but they do not in the real world. Just as the war against Iraq failed to deter Serbian aggression, Western military intervention in Bosnia will not prevent future ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union.

Much also has been made of the popular misconception that World War I was solely triggered by the 1914 assassination, in Sarajevo, of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand. Sarajevo 1992 is simply a dot on the map. Although the fighting there is a tragedy, it is a geopolitical non-event.

Nevertheless, Washington is already well down the road toward some kind of military involvement. Certain officials have waffled on U.S. military intervention, while others have more forthrightly admitted that far from being sharply demarcated, military intervention for ostensibly humanitarian purposes will inexorably lead to wider political and military involvement. If the U.N. Security Council votes to use armed force to protect air delivery of medicine and food to Sarajevo, NATO will be asked to provide the troops.

In an interview on the eve of his retirement as NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. John R. Galvin suggested that the proper precedent for NATO action in Bosnia is the allied effort to aid the Kurds after the Persian Gulf War. As was the case in Kurdistan, NATO efforts in Yugoslavia would focus initially on humanitarian assistance and later would be extended to encompass the spectrum of peacekeeping, peacemaking and deterrence--in other words, a major combat operation involving ground troops. Make make no mistake about it, as NATO's leader, the United States would be expected to contribute significantly to such efforts.

The Administration believes it faces a Hobson's choice: risk becoming entangled in the fighting in Yugoslavia or watch NATO die of irrelevance. That is a false dilemma, because NATO is an alliance whose time has passed. It would be a tragic mistake to plunge into a conflict merely to "prove" that the alliance is still relevant.

Washington largely clings to NATO because it views the alliance not only as a mechanism for U.S. supremacy in European security affairs but also as the only means of ensuring that the United States retains a voice in European diplomacy. That emphasis is misplaced. NATO leadership will not give the United States a seat at the head of Europe's diplomatic table. American power has declined; Western European power has increased.

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