Two, Three, Many Quagmires for Peace Enforcers


January 15, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON. — London -- In the days of the Vietnam war the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, used to argue that the only way to defeat the predatory American superpower was by simultaneously starting ''two, three, many Vietnams.'' He envisaged one uprising among America's blacks and another in Latin America, where he was finally gunned down while trying to encourage the Bolivian Indians to revolt.

Saddam Hussein probably does not know much about Che Guevara, nor does the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, but between them they seem to be doing a good job of implementing his ideas. Mr. Hussein's renewed forays across the Kuwaiti border have shown how easy it is to overstretch the superpower, if not militarily, certainly politically.

With a few lunges he has not only provoked President Bush one time too many, he has probably torpedoed the welling American resolve to lead the international community into some form of military intervention against Serbia. Even in the height of its Cold War state of preparedness, America could never have managed to be in three or four places at once, and it certainly can't today.

Unless Bill Clinton wants to go the way of some of his Democratic Party predecessors whose great domestic ambitions were undermined by war -- World War I for Wilson, World War II for Roosevelt and Vietnam for Johnson -- he will abjure the temptation to use force to right the wrongs in ex-Yugoslavia and will instead concentrate on cleaning up the unfinished business George Bush is bequeathing him in Iraq and Somalia.

It is not just that ex-Yugoslavia has all the ingredients for sucking America and its NATO allies into a quagmire. There could be many Yugoslavias to come, particularly in and around the disintegrating borders of the ex-Soviet Union, and there is no way that America could put out all those fires. Indeed, U.S. intervention would distract from the main message the Yugoslavs have for other ethnic trouble spots -- that nobody wins when you start on this game.

I'm not one of those who believe the world is becoming a more violent and unstable place. The spread of democracy and the ending of Cold War proxy wars more than outweigh the increase in ethnic conflicts. However, the ethnic wars now breaking out are not amenable to being easily pacified by outside firepower.

For the Americans to take on a totally impoverished semi-desert African country like Somalia is one thing. To take on Saddam Hussein in a straightforward desert war with an immediate neighbor providing the best of airfields to launch a high-tech bombardment is another. But to take on a guerrilla army in inhospitable terrain with the civilian population, U.N. peacekeepers and the relief workers held hostage is of quite a different order.

The Cold War years were a bad tutor. They gave people in Washington -- and in Moscow too -- the misleading idea that they could put a finger in here and a finger in there and stir a dozen pots. Contras in Nicaragua, military advisers in El Salvador, the CIA in Angola, Sting missiles in Afghanistan and a cornucopia of arms in Somalia.

But the business of old-style intervention, causing trouble for one side in a local war, is not the same as the business of imposing peace. It is an axiom of the science of war that it is always easier to start a conflict than end one.

Until this week, I feared the pressures building on Bill Clinton were in danger of becoming irresistible, despite all the misgivings voiced by Cyrus Vance, the chief U.N. negotiator, and by Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Saddam Hussein, in his own unwitting way, may have struck a blow for caution, giving General Powell the last word: Just as the United States could not have fought ''two, three many Vietnams,'' it cannot wage two, three or many major, simultaneous, international peace-enforcement operations.

The course in Yugoslavia must be to continue with what the U.N. and the European Community are doing this week in Geneva, negotiating, seeking a compromise, if necessary one that is unfair to the Bosnian Muslims, but leaving enough doors open so that Muslim grievances can be righted at a later, calmer, date.

Meanwhile, the important job goes on of using the U.N. peacekeepers to protect convoys of food and medicine and, most important, to go into those parts of Yugoslavia that are still quiet but which could easily explode.

Some 700 blue helmets have just gone into Macedonia. More should join them, and they should go into Kosovo too.

The world community, not least America, does have an important role to play in keeping the peace. But in the future it should wage pre-emptive peacekeeping by sending in the blue helmets ahead of hostilities to calm a situation, or it should police a truce once the real fighting is over, rather than send in an army and air force to pacify an ongoing conflagration.

Occasionally, rather rarely, there will be the spectacular invasions of one country by another, as with Kuwait or South Korea, that call for a different, more major, response.

This is how it has to go, otherwise not only will the U.N. get out of its depth, so will our one remaining superpower.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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