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BOSNIA : Balkans Long History of Drifting Into Chaos

June 25, 1995|James A. Baker III and WASHINGTON | James A. Baker III served as secretary of state from 1989-1992

The most recent crisis in Bosnia, precipitated by the Bosnian Serbs' seizure of U.N. peacekeepers, has ended--predictably--with a Serb victory.

Despite tough, though empty, talk from North Atlantic Treaty Organization and ritual condemnation by the G-7 leaders at the Halifax summit, the crisis has been resolved on Serb terms--with U.N. abandonment of its promise to protect Sarajevo from artillery bombardment.

It is time for a complete reassessment of U.S. policy toward Bosnia aimed at developing a strategy that stops the drift toward chaos in the Balkans.

The first step to such a policy begins with a sober assessment of U.S. national interests. Does the United States have an interest in stopping the humanitarian nightmare in Bosnia? Without a doubt. Does the United States have an interest in supporting the territorial integrity of Bosnia? Of course. But are our interests in either sufficiently vital to warrant the introduction of U.S. ground forces into a potential military quagmire? The answer is clearly no--as it has been from the beginning.

The United States cannot be, and should not be expected to be, the policeman of the world, ready and willing, for example, to sacrifice American lives to prevent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or genocide in Rwanda.

All interests, to put it bluntly, are not equal. This is a fact too often ignored by the armchair generals who profess expertise in the current uproar over Bosnia, though not by the American people--who are rightly skeptical of the Clinton Administration's flirtation with involvement in a Bosnian ground war.

The United States does, however, have one true vital interest in the Bosnian conflict: containing it. Should the war spread to neighboring countries, it risks a conflagration that could draw in Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and even Turkey. A broader war in the Balkans would create general instability in Europe. The United States has a compelling interest in averting such an outcome, because history teaches us that the United States cannot avoid involvement in broader European conflicts.

What would it take to move from chaos to containment and make a containment strategy work?

As a first step, U.N. peacekeepers should be withdrawn from Bosnia. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has not been the unmitigated disaster that some observers say it is. For example, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers has clearly helped reduce civilian casualties from the horrifying levels of 1991 and 1992.

But the Bosnian Serb seizure of peacekeepers has revealed the extent their utility has diminished. Today, U.N. peacekeepers have become unwitting tools of Serb aggression. The Bosnian Serbs, in total disregard of international law, have seized peacekeepers before. And they will do so again, unless peacekeepers are removed.

The United States should be prepared to assist in their extraction, though not, as President Bill Clinton has suggested, in "reconfiguring" or "strengthening" them. It is time for the United Nations to cut its losses in Bosnia--not reinforce failure. And it is time for the United States to think twice about embarking on a policy of creeping escalation without clearly defined objectives or exit strategy.

The rescue of downed pilot Scott F. O'Grady is a reminder that bad American policy can put good American lives at risk. How could we send our O'Gradys to enforce a "no-fly zone" without knowing about hostile missile batteries, or under rules of engagement that did not permit our forces to fire on those batteries?

The international arms embargo must also be lifted. Like the U.N. peacekeeping force, the embargo has outlived what usefulness it might once have had. Conceived as a measure to lower the overall level of violence, the embargo has instead strengthened the hands of the Bosnian Serbs and their masters in Belgrade. By diminishing the Bosnian government's ability to defend itself, the embargo encourages Serb aggression. Like the peacekeepers, the embargo should go.

But not by unilateral U.S. action. To do so in the face of opposition by allies risks the further fracturing of an already divided NATO. Moreover, unilateral U.S. action would represent an open invitation for other countries, notably France and Russia, to ignore similar U.N. sanctions against Iraq. More is at stake here than any idealistic commitment to multilateralism: The United States has hard-nosed interests in maintaining NATO and isolating Iraq. Both would be undermined by a unilateral lifting of the embargo.

Would our Western allies and Russia be prepared to work with us in the United Nations to lift the embargo? I believe they would, but only in the context of a full withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers and a broader strategy of containment.

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