Going into Bosnia

February 11, 1993

The six-point plan of diplomatic intervention in Bosnia announced by Secretary of State Warren Christopher yesterday lives up to President Clinton's campaign pledge to get involved in the name of human rights and decency.

The policy is more pro-Muslim and anti-Serb than the year-long mediation of Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance in the name of the European Community and the United Nations has been. It reflects worldwide outrage at the savagery -- the starvation camps and systematic rapes and dismemberments of the dead -- not found in current conflicts in Africa and Asia.

But it is not guaranteed to succeed. Mr. Clinton refrained from arming the Bosnian Muslims or committing U.S. air power against the Serbian artillery that is killing Sarajevo, because of legitimate objections from allies with peace-keeping troops on the ground that would be at risk. The U.S. plans to bring Serbia into compliance by tightening economic sanctions that so far have had negligible effect. But the willingness to commit U.S. troops to peace-keeping after an agreement adds a credible measure of U.S. power to Washington's words.

The pledge to seek war crimes tribunals is emotionally satisfying, but it may hinder the search for agreement. It is difficult to bring people to the table in good faith who are being branded as evil and threatened with hanging.

Reginald Bartholomew, the experienced American diplomat assigned to this crisis, is going to have to force his White House masters to choose between objectives that seem irreconcilable. One is to stop the killing, the destruction and torture now. Another is to carve more space and a better future for Muslims than is afforded by the Vance-Owen plan for dismemberment of Bosnia into districts that would eventually fall to Serbia and Croatia. An attempt to do that would prolong the fighting.

Another aim, with a better chance of being served, is to prevent Serbia from instituting ethnic cleansing against the Albanian population of Kosovo, which Serbia already rules with an iron hand. That step, which is clearly foreseen by Serbian nationalism, would likely lead to a wider Balkan war with intervention by Islamic volunteers and governments of the Middle East.

At least the administration has a policy. It is trying to do good, not merely subvert the Vance-Owen plan without proposing a substitute, as it seemed to be doing last week. The Clinton administration's first diplomatic initiative is not guaranteed to succeed. But it is taking risks for principle. And that, most Americans would applaud.

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