The Price of Not Intervening in Bosnia

DANIEL BERGER

August 15, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

The price of real intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina is toohigh.

The United States is not going to pay it. No European country is, including France with its ostentatious offer of troops for humanitarian aid.

The success of the Chetniks and Partisans throughout World War II pinned down so much of the German army in the mountains of Yugoslavia that no military high command wants to be in those German shoes.

One can imagine what the Soviet generals dared tell Stalin before Stalin decided not to occupy Yugoslavia in the late 1940s: Something close to what the Pentagon is saying now about what it would take to occupy Bosnia.

This does not mean that the Serbs are confident the U.S. will stay out of it. Serbs in Serbia are unscathed by this war, but know of the atrocities committed in the name of their nationalism. Some anticipate retribution, expecting U.S. bombers to pound Belgrade as they did Baghdad last year, although that is almost certainly not going to happen.

What might have been dismissed as a domestic problem became international aggression when Germany and then the world recognized the sovereignty of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Having lost none of its character as a civil war, the conflict became also a might-makes-right, rule-of-the strongest, classic aggression, like Mussolini marching into Albania, Japan taking Manchuria, Hitler annexing Austria, Argentina taking the Falklands-Malvinas islands, Saddam Hussein gobbling Kuwait.

Aggression is a precedent. Tolerating it encourages more. And then we have an anarchic world. Hindsight, rarely challenged, holds that England and France were wrong in 1938 to appease Hitler's destruction of Czechoslovakia because military ultimatums would have stopped him and prevented World War II.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler in 1938 because the price of war to stop him was too high and Britain wasn't ready. A little later, when Hitler invaded Poland, the price was higher and Chamberlain did pay it, going to war. Then Parliament chucked him out for Winston Churchill, who had wanted to make war earlier.

Perhaps we should be kinder to the memory of Neville Chamberlain. He, not Churchill, is the model for U.S. actions.

It may be that world indignation and radio can convince the Serbs to back down. There is no doubt that Serbia is committing racist atrocities in a manner reminiscent of Hitler in the destruction of Croatian and Muslim people, culture and architecture in order to create the Greater Serbia.

There is also no doubt that Croatia and Muslim Bosnia are doing the same thing, on smaller scales. So why hold out Serbia as the villain? Because Serbia is winning, its atrocities are much greater and were perpetrated first.

It would be nice to say that because the price of intervention is too high, the reasons for it don't exist. For many people it is necessary to say something like that. But it is not true. We should at least not kid ourselves as Chamberlain kidded his constituents.

The odds are that the Muslim people of Bosnia are going to be greatly reduced, with many military-aged men murdered and starved and others dispersed as refugees never to return, their mosques destroyed, their villages razed and their Bosnia

dismembered by Serbia and Croatia.

The odds are that after this has simmered down, Serbia will turn its sights on Kosovo, which it governs, to disperse Albanians and incorporate the hallowed 1389 battlefield and other parts into Serbia proper with the rest given to Albania. The risk of international war will be greater, with poor Albania tempted to intervene to save kin, and Turkey to save Albania.

The odds are also that fighting on a large scale will take place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between Turkey and the embryonic Kurdistan. Russia may come to the relief of Russians facing persecution in Latvia, Moldova and Uzbekistan. All inspired by the failure of anyone to stop Serbia's aggression.

So the price of non-intervention in Bosnia is, like the price of intervention, too high. And this price we are going to pay.

Aside from the difficulty, compared to Iraq, comparisons are made about the U.S. national interest. Denying a stranglehold on world oil to Saddam Hussein was important. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are American clients. Such clear interests are not observable in Bosnia.

The American interest, rather, is about the kind of world we all live in, and whether stronger countries are going to invade weaker ones and larger peoples obliterate smaller ones.

European countries have more clearly defined interests: old associations, the fear of refugees and the terrors of war next door.

So the aggregate world interest in imposing peace on Yugoslavia is great. But the odds are that no country will do it, and that Greater Serbia will come into the world ostracized, dirt-poor, bloody-handed and aggrieved.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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