Nearer the Brink in Bosnia

January 11, 1993

Circumspect as he tried to be, Defense secretary-designate Les Aspin casually suggested at his Senate confirmation hearing that the lessons of Vietnam about military interventions may no longer apply since the Cold War is over. He was raising the possibility of the U.S. bombing Serbian invaders in Bosnia or of arming Bosnian Muslims for defense. "Maybe you can use force, and if it doesn't work, the backing off of it hasn't got the same kind of international concerns the way it did," was his inelegant way of ditching the win-or-stay-out doctrine so sacred for the past two decades.

This does not clarify what the embryo Clinton administration might do about the human catastrophe in Bosnia. It is, instead, admission that the regime still taking shape about Mr. Clinton is starting to think the unthinkable as Serbian aggressors continue to do the unspeakable. "If the world does nothing about what's going on in Bosnia," Mr. Aspin asked, "what kind of a signal does that send to other places in the former Soviet Union and other places, where similar things might erupt?"

The drift toward action is pushed by incessant news of greater atrocity in Bosnia, none of it surprising but confirming predictions of relief workers months ago. Old people in unheated homes are freezing to death in large numbers. The humanitarian effort is switching priorities from food to fuel. But the chief United Nations relief official there, Jose-Maria Mendiluce, said the problem is already larger than humanitarian efforts can cope with. "There is only a political solution," he said, meaning an end to the war that was launched to achieve precisely this atrocity of ethnic cleansing.

European Community investigators reported 20,000 Bosnian women have been raped by Serbian soldiers -- part of the "ethnic cleansing." As Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews said, rape has "become an instrument and not a byproduct of the war." Further provocation was Serbian troops' execution of Bosnia's deputy prime minister, Hakija Turalic, after seizing him from his U.N. escort.

For the reasons of humanitarian outrage that drove American forces to Somalia, it is becoming impossible to remain detached about Bosnia. Small wonder that Washington was uncomfortable the uninvited visit of Bosnia's president desperately seeking aid. The arguments against bombing -- especially from France and Britain which have ground troops vulnerable to reprisal -- remain powerful. But with every rape and starvation and freezing, Serbian forces mock the law of nations. They are making the intervention about which Mr. Aspin speculated more difficult to avoid.

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