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When Your Options Fall Between Bad and Worst : Bosnia: There are four ways to end the fighting, and the best alternative embraces an outcome few will be content with--three ethnic zones.

June 20, 1993|Hugh De Santis | Hugh De Santis is professor of national security strategy at the National War College. The views expressed are his own.

WASHINGTON — Nearly 100,000 deaths and 1.5 million refugees later, the war in Bosnia continues to rage. Meanwhile, political leaders in Washington and Eu rope play Alphonse and Gaston to the tableau of death. The worst may yet to come. Unless the United States and Europe accept the political realities of war--including the new Serbian-Croatian proposal to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina--we could be spectators to an inferno of hatred that will burn throughout the Balkans.

What we are witnessing in the former Yugoslavia is the eruption of ethnic passions that had been stifled for six decades by German expansionism, Soviet hegemony and Josip Tito's totalitarian control. Left to themselves, and to the mercies of the demagogues who parade as politicians, the nationalities that comprised the patchwork state rediscovered their demons.

At the same time, the European Community and the United States must bear some responsibility for the prolongation of the war. The European allies' glaring lack of political will has reduced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to little more than a fig leaf of alliance cohesion. For its part, the United States has failed to formulate a policy. What has passed for policy lies somewhere between George Bush's view of the war as a humanitarian crisis that has no bearing on our national interests and Bill Clinton's view that the war affects the national interest precisely because it is a humanitarian crisis.

So what are we to do? There are four options.

The minimalist political option would be to remain detached from the war until it burns itself out. The United States and the Europeans could continue to supply humanitarian aid, enforce the no-fly zone and maybe police the safe-haven areas, hoping that continued negotiations and luck would end the fighting before it spread.

This option will neither end the atrocities nor contain the war within the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, U.S. and European passivity would undermine the West's credibility, setting a dangerous precedent that would almost assuredly be exploited by other states.

The minimalist military option would be to arm the Bosnian Muslims. This would level the playing field, reduce the devastation wreaked by the Bosnian Serbs and might improve the prospects for ending the fighting and producing a political settlement.

Arming the Muslims, however, would end the program of humanitarian aid in Bosnia, since U.N. forces would be identified with the enemy. It would also risk the safety of British and French forces there and implicitly sanction the uncontrolled flow of arms from states outside the region, especially from the Muslim world. Besides, the flow of arms would have to traverse Croat-held territory--a dicey proposition in view of the outbreak of fighting between Bosnians and Croats.

But even if sufficient arms reach the Muslims, there is little reason to believe they would be either any more inclined to end the fighting or more humane than the Serbs or Croats.

Perhaps, the United States and its allies should take the gloves off and dispatch a joint force of, say, 100,000 troops to Bosnia. Such a maximalist military option would arrest the campaign of ethnic cleansing and the proposed division of Bosnia, send an unmistakable signal that aggression will not be rewarded.

Unfortunately, many military officials--NATO Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, among them--question whether an air campaign, even one supported by ground forces, would be successful. Nor is it clear that the introduction of U.S. forces would induce the Serbs to stop fighting. Americans like to fantasize that the Serbs are bullies who, like all cowards, would retreat if forcibly challenged. Those who know them, however, disagree. As Herbert S. Okun, Cyrus R. Vance's deputy in the U.N. negotiations put it: "The Serbs kill without compunction, and they die without complaint."

An invasion force would also likely give credence to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda that the world is bent on Serbia's destruction. Moreover, the United States could find itself in a protracted war with Serbia and, lest we forget history, Russia as well, that could spread throughout the Balkans. To what end?

As was the case with another war three decades ago that began as a protective undertaking, U.S. military intervention may serve to cleanse the national conscience, but it may do so at the cost of the country's longer-term strategic objectives, not to mention American lives.

This leaves the maximalist position of redoubling our efforts to end the civil war on political grounds. Clearly, the Vance-Owen plan is dead. None of the parties to the conflict has demonstrated any interest in living in a multiethnic Bosnia. Besides, as Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian president, announced last week, the force of arms has already divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into three separate cantons.

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