Thin Blue Line

January 12, 1993

The United Nations' bluff has been called. The greater the U.N. role in peacekeeping operations, the greater likelihood of troops in blue helmets being targeted, challenged or provoked. The blue helmet is supposed to clothe soldiers in the protection of the community of nations. There is an implied threat of overwhelming force in their support. But no threat is better than the will to carry it out.

When Serbian forces murdered a Bosnian Muslim leader under U.N. convoy protection it was a nose thumbed at U.N. authority. The French who were guarding Deputy Prime Minister Hakija Turajlic had rules of engagement calling for them to shoot only in self defense. He was murdered by a short burst of automatic fire. After that, the outnumbered French troops supposedly guarding him had nothing to self-defend. The incident destroyed Muslim faith in them and scorned the U.N.

It also tempted Bosnian Muslims to withdraw from peace talks. Serbian authorities may object to U.N. protection for a Muslim figure crossing Serbian-held territory to meet Turks, but the proper response would have been complaint, not murder.

Saddam Hussein of Iraq is constantly probing U.N. and U.S. resolve. He is exploiting a presumed U.S. paralysis in this presidential transition. That, President Bush is at pains to demonstrate, is mistaken. But sending troops across the Kuwait border to retrieve seized Iraqi military equipment from unarmed U.N. guard mocks those soldiers and the U.N. So does the arrogant refusal of Baghdad to let U.N. inspectors use U.N. small planes in their search for weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqi provocations were honestly enough explained by Defense Minister Ali Hassan al-Majeed as an effort to restore "full national sovereignty over all of our land, skies and waters." Saddam Hussein is determined to reverse the results of the gulf war through single-mindedness and staying power. But his provocations of the U.N. presence must either be answered or conceded.

In Bosnia, British troops serving a U.N. mission have been shot at by Serbs and returned fire. A British carrier task force is headed to their support. French troops serving a U.N. mission may -- according to France's foreign minister -- attack Serbian camps where Muslim prisoners have been tortured and raped. Belgium is withdrawing troops from Serbia in fear that unilateral French action will compromise their safety.

The use of the United Nations for more missions brings challenges to its forces' credibility. When U.N. troops have killed and been killed, the willingness to supply them will diminish in such countries as Ireland, Ghana, Sweden and Canada. That dilemma is, at least, a sign of the growing importance of the United Nations presence. The provocations are a sign that the U.N. is taken seriously.

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