War risk looms as old hatreds erupt in Europe Bush confronts tough choice in responding to crisis

July 12, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The awful specter of ancient conflicts is haunting Europe again, and the United States can't escape it.

The horror of Bosnia is just the biggest explosion in an arc of tension stretching from Latvia on the Baltic around the periphery of the old Soviet Union to Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus.

Some of the conflicts stem from interethnic and religious rivalries that predate the post-World War II division of the Continent; others are chaotic spinoffs from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

But in total, they are shattering the promise of post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe .

The Western dream, as spelled out repeatedly by the United States, was for a "Europe whole and free," with emerging market-oriented democracies that enriched each other and civilization as a whole.

Instead, the region is becoming fractured into fiercely nationalistic microstates, sliding into the ethnic strife, persecution and warlordism of centuries past.

The unstable trend is not confined to Europe and Central Asia, says former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. "It's a much broader phenomenon," he says, citing separatism in Quebec and Scotland and instability in the Middle East and South Asia. "The disciplines of the Cold War have disappeared."

The conflicts are forcing world leaders to question how much regional instability can be endured before world peace is jeopardized, and U.S. officials to think anew about what constitutes a threat to American vital interests.

For President Bush, the growing European crisis poses almost impossibly hard choices, particularly in an election year when American attention is focused at home.

He can try to salvage a New World Order where borders are respected and disputes solved peacefully, all at the risk of getting America embroiled in another European war.

The alternative of sharply limiting American involvement is potentially worse: a continued increase in European tension and the weakening of U.S. ties to a continent where the United States invested lives and billions of dollars to nurture democracy and billions more over four decades to protect it.

The hard choices loom because solutions conceived so far -- concerted diplomacy, sanctions and peacekeeping forces -- are proving to be no match for Europe's hatreds.

Already, European and U.S. officials have launched a potentially far-reaching military rearrangement. Moving to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S. foothold in Europe, is now sharing responsibility with the Western European Union, which until recently was more of a theory than an actual military force.

This marks at least a symbolic victory for France, which has long resented U.S. dominance in European security, but dilutes U.S. involvement.

Both organizations dispatched ships last week to the Adriatic to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Serbia.

Further military restructuring may be required to prevent or end a proliferation of little wars. "Ad hoc operations of hastily assembled units will not suffice," President Bush said last week.

The Serbian assault on Bosnia-Herzegovina is the bloodiest conflict arising from the region's ugliest breakup: the collapse of the Yugoslav state once held forcefully together by Marshal Tito.

But thousands of United Nations peacekeepers in Croatia are testimony to the potential for resurgent violence there. And worried analysts are watching Kosovo in southern Yugoslavia, home to a large majority ethnic Albanian population, as a source of more trouble.

The Yugoslav breakup has opened up a Pandora's box of old alliances and enmities that keep larger powers brooding on the sidelines. Germany has historic ties with Croatia, Russia with Serbia. Greece has blocked international recognition of Macedonia, suspecting that its choice of name foreshadows a territorial claim on part of Greece. Romania has been a source of Serbian oil. Turkey, Greece's longtime foe, watches unhappily as Muslims are butchered in Sarajevo. Saudi Arabia, where the ruler is the guardian of Islamic holy places, agonizes from a distance.

Western Europe, confronted with televised carnage, also feels the brunt of a tremendous exodus of refugees.

In Western Europe and in Washington, growing fear exists of a spreading conflict. In addition, officials worry about a precedent being set that borders can be trampled and minorities oppressed, with impunity.

The war between Azeris and Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh has a similar potential for growing beyond a localized conflict, potentially taking in Iran and Turkey. Already, says Paul Goble, a specialist on former Soviet nationalities at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it is becoming less a battle between groups than a war between two countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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