Bosnia Won't Wait

February 04, 1993

The war in Bosnia will not wait for the Clinton administration to get its act together. That may be inconsiderate, but it is the way the world works. And it explains why both the mediator, Lord Owen, and the Bosnian Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, engage in such petulant haranguing of the U.S. president. They need to know where he stands now, not what he said last summer.

There may well be no good policy option, only a choice among defective ones. Those, in the current circumstance, shake down to two:

(1) The U.S. could intervene on the side of the cruelly invaded Bosnian Muslims. This would consist most importantly of ending the arms embargo and arming Muslims to defend themselves. A lesser complement could be active air cover to enforce the no-fly rule against Serbian aircraft or -- more dangerous and useful -- attacks against Serbian artillery. It would seek to roll back Serbian aggression.

(2) Full support for the United Nations-European Community mediation by former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. This requires signing on to their scheme for dividing Bosnia into 10 self-governing pieces, some of which would eventually adhere to Serbia and Croatia. The chief attraction is that it might bring peace. The chief drawback is that it would codify the results of ethnic cleansing and reward Serbian aggression.

Mr. Clinton's campaign oratory called for the first alternative. The plight of the valiant Bosnian Muslims is compelling. The negatives are that Americans dread a military involvement of such risk; it courts reprisal against British and French peace-keeping troops; it may be too late to save Bosnia; Mr. Clinton is in no position to impose a costly mission on unwilling Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Mr. Izetbegovic knows what Mr. Clinton was saying, resists the Owen-Vance plan and begs Mr. Clinton to reject it.

Mr. Owen undiplomatically criticized the U.S. government for encouraging the Muslims to hold out and Secretary of State Warren Christopher for not listening. Mr. Owen is trying to go over the head of Mr. Clinton to the American people. If Americans don't want the risks of intervening, their government should back his mediation. In the political arena, as Lord Owen says, "This isn't just the best act in town, it's the only act in town."

Unattractive as both policy options are, there is a third which is worse: to do nothing. That keeps the Muslims holding out without helping them. It torpedoes the Owen-Vance plan while offering no substitute. And until it can make a decision, that is what the Clinton administration is doing.

If the administration wants to change the Vance-Owen plan, it should propose a substitute plan immediately and forcefully. If it finds itself unable to mount an intervention to save independent Bosnia -- as seems likely -- it should support the Vance-Owens mediation, now moved to New York, the only act in town.

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