Yugoslavia and the Danger of Arms Sales

JONATHAN POWER

July 17, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON. — London--Some of the besieged inhabitants of Sarajevo, at last receiving a measure of food and medicine, are now telling foreign journalists: Send us guns, not bread. Relief, they say, is a palliative. They need weapons to escape from the corner the Serbs and the Croats have pushed them into.

For once, the great arms sellers, America, Russia, Britain, France and Germany have not rushed into the breach offering their wares. By any standard of past conflicts there has been an amazing amount of self-discipline. The UN-agreed embargo is working with only the occasional gun runner cocking a snook -- the South African Arms Corporation using a Uganda Airlines 707 to ship small arms and black marketeers taking advantage of the breakdown of central control, selling old Soviet arms.

All the more surprising, the embargo holds in spite of the fact only one side, the Serbs, controls most or all of the old Yugoslav arms factories and can churn out practically anything they want.

Is this a marker for our times? Until now the conventional wisdom, in foreign and defense ministries from Washington to Moscow to New Delhi, has been that there must be a military balance. Thus arms sales, rather than provoking war, could work to insure the peace; deterrence, whether nuclear or conventional, is an unpleasant but positive element in international relations.

We must savor this moment in political rectitude and pray for consistency. Does this perhaps mean in future we need not fear more Irangates or grain deals to enable the Saddam Husseins of the world to buy our guns? Is the West slowly beginning to understand that not only is it often not true that my enemy's enemy is my friend, but that even if he is, in this case the hapless Bosnian Muslims, it won't necessarily help him in the long run if we rush in with military hardware?

Interestingly, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is about to publish a study that examines 10 recent wars and convincingly upturns the apple cart on the belief that arms sales, if properly managed, are a trustworthy instrument for engineering stability. The study makes four important points:

* Reliable arms deliveries, on many occasions, clearly have influenced a decision to go to war.

* Arms transfers generally prolong and escalate wars, increasing suffering and destruction.

* Nevertheless, supplier states have little leverage in conditioning or even determining the outcome of hostilities.

* Arms embargoes do act to reduce the intensity of the fighting.

We can see an advanced state of this fascinating shift in the conventional wisdom being played out in Cambodia today. No country in the world has a greater history of violence and bestiality as Cambodia and, like Yugoslavia, it is a many-sided contest. For too many years the West supported the genocidal )) guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge merely because they were the only force that appeared strong enough to undermine the Vietnamese-backed central government.

Five years ago Washington, responding to one of Gorbachev's many olive branches, changed tack and, after four years of painfully slow negotiations under the authority of the U.N. Security Council, a peace agreement was signed in Paris nine months ago. The successive decisions of the Vietnamese to withdraw military support from the central government and of the Chinese to halt arms shipments to the rebel Khmer Rouge helped force the peace. It is now being implemented at an estimated cost of $2 billion (cheap, compared with the gulf war's cost of $53 billion) with 15,000 U.N. soldiers, 1,500 U.N. police and thousands of U.N. civilian administrators. The might of the U.N. is being substituted for one-sided political and military support.

At the moment, however, it looks as if the Khmer Rouge, the most deadly fighting force in the world, is about to tear up the Paris accords, refusing as promised in Paris to place its disarmed troops in U.N. camps while elections are organized. It is clear that the arms embargo imposed on the country is badly leaking and this is bolstering the Khmer Rouge's bravado. The Security Council needs to intervene again and order Thailand to close its border with Cambodia, which both the Thai generals and the Khmer Rouge use to trade across in illicit timber, gems and guns.

The lesson of Cambodia is clear for Yugoslavia -- and for the rest of the world where conflicts erupt. Revitalizing the U.N. is welcome and overdue -- it is a real and workable alternative to balance of power Realpolitik. But without real restraint in the selling of arms the work of the U.N. in holding the ring is in danger of sabotage. Unless we cut down on the flow of arms, wars will kill more people than they have to, peace settlements will not be negotiated and if they are there is a danger they will end up on the scrap-heap.

Don't listen to the voices of anguish crying for arms in Bosnia. Instead keep the lid on arms sales. Tighten the embargo on Serbia. Ceaselessly work for negotiations. Be ready to field more U.N. soldiers to implement a cease-fire. Doubtless for a while, if stupidity persists, these terrible killings will continue even for another year or two. But be assured any other way would have been far, far worse.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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