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THE BALKANS : The Croatian Offensive: Too Much of a Good Thing?

August 13, 1995|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School. He is author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is working on a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — Where woolly mammoths and dire wolves once screamed out their death agony in the La Brea Tar Pits, paleontologists now scrape patiently at their bones. Something similar may happen in the future as historians pick over the remains of the Clinton Administration's Balkans policy.

Those mammoths and dire wolves weren't looking for trouble when they stepped in the tar. In fact, they thought they had found relief: A shallow layer of water over the tar deceived them into thinking that they were stepping into a nice, cool lake for a refreshing drink of water.

That's exactly what the Administration thought when it unleashed the Croatian attack on the Krajina, the breakaway region of Croatia that had been controlled by rebel Serbs since the beginning of the Yugoslav War.

Ever since it took office, the Clinton Administration has been dogged by a contradiction in Bosnia: its goals cannot be achieved without the ground troops it is unwilling to send.

Last week's Croatian attack was the Administration's boldest effort yet to resolve this dilemma. Instead of Marines, it sent in the Croats.

Make no mistake about it. The Croatian attack on rebel Serbs had Washington's fingerprints all over it. U.S. generals helped train the Croatian attackers. The United States orchestrated the arms shipments--in violation of the U.N. arms embargo--that helped give the Croatian army its victory, and the United States gave Croatia a diplomatic go-ahead for the attack.

It was the most professional and ambitious foreign-policy operation of the Clinton Administration and it has transformed the situation both in the Balkans and at home. In both Washington politics and international diplomacy, the Administration has seized the initiative.

Most satisfying, perhaps, Washington has finally had some revenge on the Serbs. After three years of humiliation and frustration, the United States has reminded the Serbs that it isn't smart to mess with Uncle Sam. Now the Serbs are getting a taste of their own medicine, and Serb public opinion must digest pictures of long columns of wretched refugees chased from their homes.

In Washington, where just two weeks ago Congress, egged on by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, voted against Administration policies, the Administration is back in the saddle, and its critics are looking very blue. Senators talk, Presidents act, as Clinton can now remind Dole.

In Europe, the United States has sidelined two countries that have blocked U.S. policy at every turn. Britain and France, which support a partition of Bosnia on terms favorable to the Serbs, had used their influence to block the more pro-Muslim policy favored by the United States.

Russia, too, has been flummoxed. Its friends, the Serbs, have suffered a bloody nose, and Russia's efforts to mediate the crisis have been firmly sidelined. The Croats declined a Russian invitation to meet with the Serbs in Moscow to settle things once and for all; "No thank you," they said politely, "we'd rather work with the West."

With all this going for it, the Croatian attack looks like a spectacular foreign-policy success for the President--like a cool drink of water on a hot day. Let's hope so. The United States has had enough bad news from the Balkans.

But sober second thoughts are in order. Already, the Administration feels something sticky on its shoes. The after effects of the Croatian attack are going to be messy and complicated, and Washington won't be able to escape the responsibility of dealing with them. Thinking only of relief, the Administration has, in fact, plunged into a sticky, gooey quagmire, and it won't be easy to flounder back on shore.

The first problem is moral. The basis of U.S. policy in Yugoslavia has, all along, been that ethnic cleansing is such a terrible crime that the civilized world must oppose it. Fair enough, but the United States never had the muscle to back up its high principles. Now the United States has muscle--Croatian muscle--but where are the principles?

As hundreds of thousands of Serbian refugees flee threatened reprisals, and as Croatian forces shoot fleeing civilians in the back, where is morality? The United States has just helped facilitate the largest single act of ethnic cleansing in this whole wretched war.

The next problem is more practical. The end result of the offensive may not be that good for Bosnian Muslims. Suddenly, there are 250,000 more Serbs in Bosnia, 50,000 of them armed. That could strengthen the Serbian militia, and it certainly strengthens the political determination of the Serbs to hold the territory they have taken. With all those refugees to settle, the Serbs will now feel they have a moral claim to cities like Zepa and Srebrenica, which they have taken from the Muslims.

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