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Looking at Bosnia, Clinton Sees Only Hard, Ugly Choices : Diplomacy: The Clinton team criticized the Vance-Owen plan as a sellout to Serbian rapists. But now they would be lucky to get it.

April 18, 1993|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is now working on a book on U.S. foreign policy for the Twentieth Century Fund.

NEW ORLEANS — The Clinton Administration knows what it doesn't want in the Balkans: It doesn't want to surrender and it doesn't want to shoot--at least not on the ground. Another tumultuous week in Bosnia has brought it closer to both.

With even Lord Owen calling for Western air strikes, the United States is inching closer to a shooting war in the former Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the Vance-Owen plan, once denounced by the Clinton Administration as a sellout to Serbian rapists, now looks too good to be true.

Unfortunately, this is only the start--of both the surrenders and the shots. One hundred days into his Administration, President Bill Clinton is stuck with the nastiest foreign-policy problem that the nation has faced since Vietnam, and the White House can't make up its mind what to do.

It's not hard to see why. The only choices left are ugly ones. The Clinton Administration would love to wash its hands of the whole filthy mess, but that is the one thing it can't do. The Yugoslav war is too serious. If Serbia widens the war to Kosovo and Macedonia--the next items on its shopping list--Greece, Turkey and Albania could well be drawn into a war that would wreck the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; destabilize the whole Middle East, and rip up the delicate system of international cooperation that the West has painfully pieced together in the 50 years since World War II. These are risks no President can ignore.

If we can't just forget it, what can we do? Air strikes, say the optimists. Superior U.S. and allied air power can block Serbian supply lines and force the Serbs to accept the Vance-Owen plan.

Wrong answer. Air strikes against supply lines cannot make the Serbs retreat from their conquests. A few bombs might make the West feel less guilty about abandoning the Bosnian Muslims, but they won't change things on the ground.

If we don't send in the Marines--and, at this point, we can't and we won't--there is only one realistic thing to do: cave and run up the white flag. The Serbs have won the Bosnian war, there is nothing we can say or do that can change that. This will be particularly humiliating for a Clinton team that attacked George Bush's timidity and vacillation. They were sure they knew better. The new Democratic team--moral and courageous unlike the evil Republicans--would teach those child-murdering Serbian rapists a thing or two.

But so far, it is the Serbs who have been teaching the Democrats, and the course is Humiliation 101. First, the Clinton team had to climb off its high horse and tamely fall into line behind Vance-Owen; now the Administration is scrambling to save the peace plan it once denounced.

Even this won't work. New Serbian advances in eastern Bosnia have made the original Vance-Owen plan a dead letter. With the fall of Srebrenica, the Muslims have lost much of the territory Vance-Owen would have saved them, and a new and sorry era in U.S. diplomacy is beginning. The Administration will end by supporting a territorial settlement less favorable to the Muslims than the one it originally denounced as a capitulation to Serbian aggression and ethnic cleansing.

So far, so bad. But worse is to come. The Clinton Administration still hasn't learned the lessons of Bosnia, and it is making a bad situation worse. U.S. envoy Reginald Bartholomew was in the former Yugoslavia last week, breathing new threats against the Serbs. The Serbs had better accept Vance-Owen or else. Or else what? Or else, in essence says the United States, "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down."

The Serbs don't believe it--and are right. The cavalry isn't coming and they know it. Empty threats make appalling diplomacy. They make the United States look ridiculous and inflame the Serbs. They are also bad for the Muslims: Without inflated rhetoric from the United States, the Muslims might have accepted Vance-Owen last fall, when there was still time to save Srebrenica. Bosnia's children are dying today in part because their parents trusted Washington.

This all plays badly in Russia. The hard-line nationalists hear Washington's threats against the Serbs and draw the conclusion that Washington is part of a Western plot against Slavs. They see Washington's bluff and evasions, and conclude the West is divided and weak. We are teaching Russia's fascists to hate us and to hold us in contempt; we could hardly do worse if we tried.

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