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How to Live With a Hobbesian Choice

June 11, 1995|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times.

NEW YORK — The crisis triggered by the taking of hostages in Bosnia may yet serve a useful purpose if it leads, at last, to a realization that Western policy has been adrift. Mistakes of two Administrations and European evasions have landed the democracies in a situation that leaves them with only a choice among evils.

Direct U.S. support for its allies on the hostage issue is, morally and practically, the least complex option. U.S. recommendations to escalate air strikes put the U.N. forces at risk in the first place. More important, if Bosnian Serbs achieve any gains, hostage-taking, as a tactic, will come back into vogue.

Conventional wisdom to the contrary, the threat to Europe from the war in Bosnia is no greater than it is to the United States: Neither is in danger unless the war escalates; both are in peril in the unlikely event that the conflict becomes general. The U.S. pledge to help extricate the forces that are also fighting our battle must be redeemed.

At the same time, the plan to use ground forces to reposition allied forces was mercifully abandoned. The idea that U.S. forces should escort allies to new combat positions, only to leave them there to the tender mercies of the contestants, was as dangerous to the cohesion of the alliance as it was on the ground.

Unless it makes itself the world's policeman, the United States cannot employ its military power regardless of the relevance of the issues to its interests. An analysis of U.S. foreign policy must differentiate among three levels of military challenges: those that affect U.S. interests so directly that they must be resisted alone, if necessary; those that should be resisted only if a coalition can be formed, and those that do not warrant risking American lives.

Bosnia does not meet the first two criteria. Indeed, it is moot whether the conventional meaning of aggression applies to Bosnia at all.

In essence, the Bosnian war is the continuation of a centuries-old conflict between religions, Muslim conquerors and Serb and Croat subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbian nationalists. There has never been a Bosnian nation; there exists no identifiable Bosnian culture or language. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been the no man's land between all the Balkan passions and conflicts, as is reflected in its ethnic composition--30%-35% Serbian, 25% Croatian and 40%-45% Muslim.

Outside powers must recognize that they are dealing with an ethnic conflict. Outside powers seeking to impose a solution must be prepared to stay for a long time on the ground to enforce whatever they impose, and understand that the Serbs, Croats and Muslims will still be there with their mutual hatreds after the outside powers tire of their exertions. Thus, the more the United States and its allies seek to modify the status quo, the larger must be their military commitment and the longer they must be prepared to stay. Recommendations that ignore this are empty posturing.

Imposing a cease-fire along existing or slightly modified lines is the easiest of the options vis-a-vis the Bosnian Serbs but the most difficult in relation to the Muslims and Croats. Enforcing a retreat on the Serbs will become increasingly costly the farther back they are pushed, with the added complication that the Muslims and Croats will not be satisfied with any partial outcome. Thus, the United States and its allies could fall under fire--politically and perhaps militarily--from all the parties. Given these realities, the Administration may come to regret, or choose to reconsider, its offer of American troops to police the settlement.

Still, for a nation with America's moral convictions, resisting inhumanity in the form of ethnic cleansing and human-rights abuses could well be turned into a plausible military commitment. But so many atrocities have been committed by all sides, and continue to be committed by whichever side is advancing, that punishing human rights violations would impose the necessity of punishing all the combatants practically all the time.

Sen. Bob Dole's proposal to lift the arms embargo and to undertake massive air support for the rearmed Muslim, and presumably Croat, forces has merit. But any proposal to lift the embargo must deal with the near-certainty that it would trigger a major Serbian offensive before their adversaries' level of armaments is fully operational.

Since France and Britain have insisted that they would withdraw under these circumstances, such a course must imply a U.S. readiness to fill the gap if it is not to make matters worse. If the assumptions about the combination of lifting the arms embargo and U.S. air support prove too optimistic, American ground forces will surely be called for. In such a conflict, Russia will undoubtedly help Serbia.

A number of conclusions follows:

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