Taking the lead, timidly

Leslie H.Gelb

February 12, 1993|By Leslie H.Gelb

FINALLY, the U.S. has accepted a leadership role in the Balkan crisis. That is the main point of the modest diplomatic initiatives unveiled Wednesday by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Reversing the largely rhetorical and passive stance of the Bush administration, President Clinton has now committed the U.S. to finding a comprehensive plan to combat the deadly virus of nationalism that threatens to obliterate hope for a new world order.

But there should be no illusions about Wednesday's presentation. It represents a retreat from Mr. Clinton's promised tough approach. And the fact that Mr. Christopher did the unveiling shows the president does not want to commit himself fully and personally to this enterprise.

Also noteworthy, Mr. Christopher carefully sidestepped calling his offerings a "plan" or even a "policy." And rightly so. What he outlined was, rather, a means to a plan -- if one can be devised with the approval of the United Nations, Western European allies, Russia and the warring parties in Bosnia themselves.

With the U.S. military and allies all resisting the use of force, with allies and Russia refusing to arm Bosnian Muslims, with the United Nations digging in against deviations from the Vance-Owen peace plan and with widespread concern that RTC foreign crises will divert energies from domestic priorities, the Christopher approach was probably the most Clinton aides could cobble together now.

At bottom, what Mr. Christopher presented reflected a series of complicated bureaucratic and diplomatic compromises, a tentative and temporizing patchwork that raises more questions than it answers.

First, how will the appointment of a special U.S. envoy avoid transforming a U.N. responsibility into a U.S. responsibility? Such usurpation is wrong for the Bosnian crisis and disastrous for any long-term effort to strengthen the U.N.

No effective plan for Bosnia will ever command the necessary international backing unless rooted in the Security Council.

Reginald Bartholomew, the envoy and a first-class pro, will be under great pressure from his superiors to act with or without Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen. But the lead should remain with them and the U.N.

Second, how can Mr. Christopher continue to speak publicly of supporting the Vance-Owen ethnic enclave proposal -- thereby undermining the administration's own plans to modify it -- when he continues to damn it privately? If Clinton aides believe it is fundamentally flawed, their own efforts merely to modify it make little sense.

My view is that no negotiated peace will be possible for some time. Bosnian hatreds run too deep. Even if the parties signed an agreement, they would bloody it daily. No peacekeeping force, of 50,000 or 100,000 or whatever, could stop them.

Third, while the Christopher approach thankfully offers to put new teeth into the economic embargo against Serbia, do administration officials really believe this will compel Belgrade to stop the war, let alone roll back its territorial gains? The currency most appreciated in the Balkans, as elsewhere, is force.

Fourth, does Mr. Christopher's dance around the central issue of threatening and using force mean the U.S. will not prompt discussions of force for months to come?

To be sure, he spoke of unspecified U.S. military involvement to enforce a treaty agreed to by all parties. He also alluded to the possible use of U.S. troops to help humanitarian deliveries. But these measures barely scratch the surface of what will be needed.

In my opinion, only the prospect of the West intervening and/or arming Croats and Bosnian Muslims can stun the Serbs into stopping. I know well the fears, difficulties and dangers in this course.

But I am equally convinced that limited military means can be found to send the necessary messages and protect population centers and aid deliveries -- means and manpower far less than the 100,000 troops that will be needed to police any "negotiated" settlement.

European leaders know the futility of diplomacy without force. But rather than risk using force, they are prepared to accept the strategic and moral consequences of ethnic cleansing. Mr. Clinton, now that he has edged toward the Balkan inferno, must live up to American values.

Leslie H. Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times.

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