The U.N.'s Hesitation Waltz

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 17, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The Western powers now are getting precisely the intervention in Bosnia they most feared. Those who blocked the idea of a short, shock-effect, limited-objective politico-military intervention to punish aggression and reassert the rules of respect for frontiers and protection for minorities, successfully argued that this would really produce a bogged-down, endlessly escalating intervention -- a new Ulster or Vietnam.

They won the argument -- and now they've got just that. Not that there was much of an argument. Britain was against a military intervention, and so was the French government. Germany was inclined to favor it but could not take part in it. The U.S. government saw in it domestic political risk and told the Europeans that Yugoslavia was their affair.

The leaders of the United States, Britain and France had to placate Western public opinion, greatly agitated by images and accounts of the sieges of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, and testimonies of ''ethnic cleansing'' and the heartless abuse of civilians victimized because they were of the wrong religion and historical community.

They did so by mounting humanitarian missions under U.N. sponsorship to open the Sarajevo airport, feed civilians, rescue refugees and protect prisoners. But the forces sent on these missions were strictly precluded from taking sides or even, until now, from taking any offensive measures to defend themselves or to secure their positions.

The result was an ineffectual operation, whose security had to be purchased through appeasing the interests of the local militia commanders of all three combatants, as well as placating the paranoia or political fantasies of Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. The intervention now has also proved an escalating one, which lacks a coherent and achievable military objective, and which increasingly has become the target of anger, misinterpretations and attack by all three of the Yugoslav parties to this war.

The Italian aircraft carrying blankets to Bosnian-held Sarajevo, in anticipation of the winter that soon will set in, was, according to all credible accounts, shot down September 3 by Bosnian forces. The U.N.'s regular convoy from Belgrade to Sarajevo, carrying supplies for the U.N. forces themselves, was last week also attacked by Bosnian forces -- according to the United Nations -- with two French U.N. soldiers killed and five wounded.

The Bosnians are presumed to have thought that in this way they could intensify pressures for an international intervention to end the war -- thereby saving independent Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Serbs and Croats. They actually have sacrificed much of the international sympathy they recently enjoyed.

This is not a conflict properly to be determined by whether external forces are ''for'' one community against the others. That attitude gave us World War I, when the European powers responded to the crisis provoked by the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand (in Sarajevo, by a member of a Serbian terrorist organization) by throwing themselves into the war which followed according to their sentimental or historical sympathies in the Balkans. There is no place for that today.

The result of these presumed Bosnian actions is, however, more or less what the Bosnians want. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has asked that the U.N. forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina be more than quadrupled, to a total of 7,000 to 8,000 men, with substantial armor, and with the right to an ''enlarged'' self-defense in the course of escorting humanitarian convoys. That puts the international community into this war on a much bigger scale.

It also puts it there with a mission commitment far less clearly defined than the politico-military interventions previously demanded. While a three-sided war goes on, the United Nations now undertakes to clear logistical corridors, fighting its way when necessary, to deliver supplies to certain selected besieged civilian populations so as to permit them, as the Bosnians bitterly have said, ''to be well-fed when we die.''

No direct military pressure is being placed upon the warring parties to stop the war. Certainly nothing will be attempted so ambitious as to punish aggressors in seized territories and the authorities who sent them there, or to try war criminals, or to re-establish frontiers and return people to their homes.

Nor is any effort being made to block this war's extension to Kosovo or Vojvodina, or to Macedonia. Hence this U.N. intervention is by its nature inconclusive, if not futile. It will presumably go on until Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance persuade the Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians to make peace with one another -- or until the countries supplying the U.N. forces become unwilling to have their young men killed in such circumstances. The latter eventuality is likely to arrive well before the former.

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