Twin Tragedies: Haiti and Bosnia

May 26, 1992

When the vital interests of the big powers are not involved, can the international community ever muster the will to take collective military action against tyrants and aggressors who outrage humanity? The Persian Gulf war, when oil supplies were at stake, inspired brave talk about a "new world order." But since then, international resolve has been found wanting, not least because the United States has been unable to live up to its self-proclaimed leadership role.

The twin tragedies of Haiti and Bosnia underscore the problem. Haiti today is in the grip of a military regime that overthrew its first-ever democratically elected president last September. At that time the Organization of American States, with U.S. encouragement, flexed its muscles before returning to its customary impotence. Now thousands of Haitians, driven to desperation, have become boat people. The Bush administration does not know what to do with them.

Bosnia, having declared its independence from defunct Yugoslavia, is currently the victim of a vicious civil war among Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Over the weekend, Secretary of State James A. Baker III hinted at possible U.S. participation in multi-national action against the aggressor Serbian regime. Ten days ago, his spokeswoman was dismissing Bosnian pleas for help, saying the U.S. had no strategic interests in the Balkans.

These crises suggest that the world's only remaining superpower cannot get too far out in front of other countries, whose cooperation is required, or its own people, who are obsessed with domestic troubles and a declining economy.

The OAS, unable to follow up its tough resolutions against the Haitian regime, has settled on leaky economic sanctions that have made life miserable for the masses. Early last week, U.S. policy decreed that Haitians fleeing their homeland were to be picked up by Coast Guard cutters and taken to the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By mid-week, with Guantanamo at capacity, Washington declared boat people would be allowed to sail to the U.S. Over the weekend, the White House switched again, saying boat people would be stopped at sea and returned directly to Haiti.

This policy is cynical and racist. It is also inept, bringing the whole doctrine of collective security into disrepute. Whether the doctrine can be rescued in Bosnia depends not so much on the Americans as on the Europeans, who have been quick to recognize the independence of the breakaway Yugoslav states but unwilling to stop the worst fighting the continent has seen since World War II. France and Greece, for different reasons, oppose collective action. There also are doubts China would permit the Security Council to invoke U.N. Charter Article 7, which was the basis for collective action against Iraq.

All this suggests the "new world order" will not be orderly until the world community, with U.S. leadership, learns how to enforce the peace.

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