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Bosnian Arms: It's Now a Killer Question : The so-called mere 'civil war' that now threatens the Western alliance

November 15, 1994

Relations between the United States and its NATO allies, particularly the British, have become progressively more strained over Bosnia in recent months. But a critical point may have been reached last Saturday when the Clinton Administration terminated U.S. participation in the enforcement of a U.N.-imposed Bosnian arms embargo.

President Clinton's action has little to do with generally tense relations between Prime Minister John Major's Tory government and his own Democratic Administration. While it is true that Tories usually get on better with Republicans than with Democrats (Tory Margaret Thatcher and Republican Ronald Reagan got on famously), Bosnia is creating an exception to that rule. For the Clinton Administration's Bosnia policy, however clearly at odds with British policy, differs less than the policy that will be pursued by the incoming Republican majority in Congress.

The point most at issue is the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on all of the former Yugoslavia. Because Serbs dominated the former federation and, in particular, controlled its military, they retained control of the federation's arsenal, and the blanket embargo has had a grossly uneven effect, favoring Serb aggression and retarding Bosnian defense.

Congressional Republicans are determined to go beyond non-enforcement to a unilateral U.S. breach of the embargo, claiming that only when Bosnia has armed for its self-defense can further Serb aggression be deterred. They may well attempt to force Clinton's hand with binding legislation. America's NATO allies want the embargo maintained, claiming that peace can best be reached by ratifying most of the early Serb conquests and, in any event, by preventing arms from being shipped to any of the warring parties.

Congress' view that Serb aggression must be halted by the stick rather than the carrot is, in our judgment, the more realistic path to peace, but realism has also seemed to dictate that the United States not pursue a European policy in defiance of Britain, France and even Germany, (not to speak of Russia, which with the four main NATO powers has formed a "Contact Group" vainly attempting to piece together a common Balkans policy).

The Clinton Administration faces a dilemma that probably cannot be resolved unless the U.N. Security Council itself chooses to lift the embargo. The Europeans will resist any U.S. attempt to persuade the council to take this step, and a Russian veto is likely if less than certain. Still, facing a hawkish Republican majority in Congress, the Administration would be well advised to try harder than it has hitherto to find the Security Council votes it needs.

If it fails to find them, it is just possible that the embargo dispute may herald a phase-out of NATO itself as a factor in European security. The NATO allies have placed themselves in a lose-lose position as regards the preservation of the alliance. If, on the one hand, they force the United States to back down and to help them maintain the embargo, the Americans, particularly the Republicans, will infer that NATO lacks the will to confront Russia on anything smaller than a life-or-death issue. And since, on such an issue, Europe is well able to defend itself without American help, NATO will be seen to have outlived its usefulness. If, on the other hand, the Clinton Administration refuses to back down and, under congressional pressure, breaks the embargo unilaterally, the rupture in NATO will only come quicker.

Will the United States sacrifice NATO to its Bosnia policy? Or will the NATO allies sacrifice NATO to theirs? Who needs NATO more? Intransigence on both sides, helped along by a Russian veto in the Security Council, may yet succeed in fragmenting an alliance that held up through all the strains of the Cold War, a remarkable consequence of what some persist in calling a mere civil war.

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