NEW YORK — Rarely has a President been faced with decisions involving the Hobson's choice presented to Bill Clinton over Bosnia. If the Bosnian Serbs reject the Vance-Owen plan, he is being urged to bring them into line by military action, probably bombing. If they accept the plan, he seems committed to contributing 20,000 U.S. troops to a peacekeeping force of more than 60,000. And he may well wind up being obliged to take both steps.
In either case, the United States would be participating in a civil war involving three fanatically passionate parties with no perceived threat to the security or well-being of the United States.
Clinton's dilemma springs from two conflicting emotions. Serbian atrocities evoke an overwhelming humanitarian urge to do something. But the responsibility of the commander in chief, to risk American lives only in case of overriding necessity, impels restraint. If force is used, we dare not fail. But criteria by which to measure success are elusive.
Interventionists argue that moral imperatives override calculations of national interest. In the next breath, they insist on collective action and reject the use of ground troops. Neither restraint would apply if American security were at stake.
Understanding must begin with a definition of what is not at stake in Bosnia.
It is a civil war, not an invasion of a sovereign country by a neighbor. Croatia and Serbia support their nationals inside Bosnia, though Serbian assistance is the most flagrant.
It is not a holocaust in the German sense and not only because the number of casualties is mercifully not comparable to the Nazi crimes. The Holocaust represented a Nazi attempt to exterminate a peaceful minority in pursuit of warped racial theories. The Bosnian atrocities--appalling as they are--represent the barbaric methods of Balkan civil wars that, with some interruptions, have been going on for centuries.
It is not a trigger of a wider conflict. What could trigger a wider war would be Serb attacks on Macedonia or Kosovo, which should be resisted locally. An equally great danger is that U.S. military action could lead to an uprising in Kosovo and Croat attacks on the U.N. zones in southern Croatia.
Nor is the issue between peace on the Vance-Owen lines or continued conflicts. Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen have performed the miracle of negotiating in a vacuum amid petty complaints from the sidelines.
But none of the parties is content with the plan's territorial aspects. War will therefore resume unless Bosnia is flooded by foreign troops prepared to stay there indefinitely and to fight all the contenders. Even the foreign minister of the Bosnian Muslim victims has affirmed Muslim determination to regain all of Bosnia by force if necessary. The international force will thus be not a peace-keeping but a peacemaking force.
The United States has only two interests in Bosnia: to end the outrage against its moral values represented by Serbian atrocities and to keep the war from spreading beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia.
The way to stop the atrocities is to stop the war. But the dividing line between the contending ethnic groups in Bosnia does not involve a U.S. interest.
I strongly support the sanctions being applied to Serbia, and if a cease-fire is not reached rapidly, I would favor stronger ones--including the break-off of diplomatic relations. The controversial issue is whether America's moral outrage at Serbian conduct warrants military action followed by a prolonged U.S. combat presence in Bosnia to police it.
It is important to understand that Bosnia has never been a nation; there is no specifically Bosnian cultural identity. Located at the intersection of the Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Catholic religions and at the dividing line between the Ottoman and the Hapsburg empires, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been the no man's land where nationalities displaced by endless Balkan wars were thrown together. Serbs, Croats and Muslims--descendants of Slavic Christians converted to Islam during Turkish rule and therefore considered turncoats by the other ethnic groups--have coexisted only under alien rule. The last time Bosnia was the subject of an international agreement was at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when it was organized on the basis of Turkish suzerainty, Austrian military control and local self-government--hardly a precedent for a modern national state.
The most irresponsible mistake of the current tragedy was international recognition of a Bosnian state governed by Muslims, blindly following the precedent of Germany's hasty recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. But whereas Croatia and Slovenia had their own identity, Bosnia was a Yugoslavia in microcosm.