A Double Appeasement on Bosnia

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 08, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The new world order has arrived. It is well and truly new, consecrating invasion, aggression and ethnic purge as acceptable international conduct -- acceptable since in fact accepted by the democracies, ratified in the Vance-Owen plan for Yugoslav settlement.

The principal agency of international action, the U.N. Security Council, pursues peace in Yugoslavia by demanding that the victim of aggression, the non-ethnic Bosnian government, halt its resistance to what is being done to its people.

''How much courage is needed to be a coward!'' the under-secretary of the British Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, wrote in his diary in September 1938, when Britain and France served their ultimatum on Czechoslovakia's President Eduard Benes, demanding that Benes yield to Hitler's demands.

The appeasers had a case to make, as Western leaders today do not have. The French and British governments in 1938 believed that Czech arrogance had invited difficulties with Germany. They believed that Hitler's claims on the German-populated Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia had some justification. They saw Hitler as an aggressive nationalist, but not as a figure of megalomanic and genocidal ambition.

They believed their own countries were weaker than a rearming Germany. People then were closer to World War I than we are to Vietnam, with terrible memories. The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, sent a memo to the Foreign Office in May 1938: ''Surely our right course is to be prepared to submit, provided we secure peace in the West, without too great discomfort to the surge and swell of restless Pan-Germanism in Central and Eastern Europe. . . . [W]hat other practical course is open to us if we are to avoid the insane fatalistic folly of setting our course for another war?''

The West then believed that Hitler's ambitions lay wholly in the East. Henderson's memo went on to say that ''a certain German predominance eastward is inevitable, and peace in the West must not be sacrificed to a theoretically laudable but practically mistaken idealism in the East. . . . [T]he German is certainly more civilized than the Slav. . . . One might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavor to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.''

This was a ''realistic'' position which history has shown to have been mistaken as well as amoral. It was not irrational, however. The appeasers had a case.

Do they have a case today? Serbia is not Nazi Germany. It is a minor power with a divided public opinion and a total regular armed force of 135,000, 39,000 of whom are conscripts. Switzerland can mobilize five times that number of soldiers. The Serbian militias in Bosnia are well-armed and fanatical but undisciplined and unprofessional.

Serbia is not making a diplomatic demand that the international community award it Serbian-occupied parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzogovina, as Hitler was doing with respect to the Sudetenland. It has invaded those countries and seized those territories (and more), brutally expelling or murdering the inhabitants, holding these regions today by means of proxy ''autonomous republics.'' Its demand is that the world accept what it has done. In the Vance-Owen plan, the world does -- with a legalistic demur or two.

As in 1938, there is a real risk that the present war will spread, but the way this is likely to come is as a consequence of Serbian victory and subsequent efforts to purge Serbia itself of its Albanian and Hungarian minorities. Indifference to aggression invites new aggressions.

The threat to the West is not that it might be drawn into an ill-prepared war with a great power, but that by tolerating and rewarding aggression, much of southeastern Europe will be drawn into disorder and war, with demoralizing and divisive effect upon the democracies -- and a potentially most dangerous influence inside the ex-Soviet Union.

The sole case for appeasement today is that Western leaders fear the political consequences in their own countries of military involvement in Yugoslavia. The West did nothing effective a year and a half ago, however, when economic and political measures might have halted the crisis, and now West European and other U.N. forces have become deeply and dangerously involved on the ground in Yugoslavia precisely because of their governments' evasion of their international responsibilities.

There has until now been some question as to the attitude that would be taken by the Clinton administration. The past few days have confirmed that its policy will also be that of ostentatious measures of humanitarian assistance -- impartially distributed between Serb aggressors and besieged Bosnians -- with support for the Vance-Owen plan.

The airdrops made by the U.S. Air Force last week have cruelly demonstrated the limit to what the U.S. is prepared to do: night airdrops from 10,000 feet in mountainous country -- with the particularly nice touch of including pork meals for starving Muslims. This is in part an expression of the American military's post-Vietnam determination to accept only no-risk assignments, but is fundamentally faithful to the established Western policy in dealing with this crisis, which is to appease, simultaneously, Western public opinion and aggression itself. It is an implausible program, but one that thus far has been a success.

The final step, already announced, will be the injection of U.S. troops to enforce the Vance-Owen plan, once that is signed. And who will have any reason to resist? Only the victims.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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