Abdicating Leadership While a People Dies in Bosnia



'We were abandoned by the international community,'' Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic observed on the first anniversary of the Bosnian war. Few observers of the Balkan scene would disagree.

''I've done everything that I know to do, consistent with the possibilities we have for further action in the United Nations, with our European allies and the members of the Security Council,'' President Bill Clinton observed. ''It's a very frustrating and difficult situation.''

In many cases, he said, the United States has been willing to do more than its British and French allies, who have resisted virtually every proposed move to counter Serbian ''cleansing of Bosnia.''

But except for the food drops -- undertaken against European and U.N. resistance -- two American Presidents have joined our European allies in swallowing the impulse to action.

Why? What explains Western passivity in the face of sustained murder and mayhem? Why has the European Community utterly failed to cope with this infectious violence in the heart of Europe?

Why did President George Bush, who provided world leadership to cope with aggression in Kuwait and devastation in Somalia and was keen to build a new world order, avert his eyes from the destruction of Dubrovnik, the siege of Sarajevo, Goradze and a dozen other Muslim towns?

Why did French President Francois Mitterrand and his foreign minister, Roland Dumas, take no action against the wholesale assault on the rights of men, women and children in a neighboring European state, especially after French journalists and the French secretary of state for human rights provided graphic accounts of the Balkan agony?

Why have Britain's Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd steadfastly resisted an international response to Serbian aggression?

Why have Germany and Austria stayed so still about what is happening in this area they know so well?

Why have other member states of the United Nations, especially the Islamic Conference, not pressed more effectively for action in defense of Bosnia's Muslims?

Have Europeans and Americans failed to resist aggression in Bosnia because so many of the victims are Muslims? Would there have been more effective action to save Christians?

Has the U.N. itself been the principal source of inaction in Bosnia? Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali strongly opposed implementation of the E.C.-sponsored London Agreement last July after it was endorsed by the Security Council and has since strongly opposed all but strictly diplomatic moves. Is that the reason for U.N. inaction?

There is an answer of sorts for each of these questions:

George Bush was engaged in an election campaign in which he had already been reproached for paying too much attention to foreign affairs.

The French and British have contributed peacekeeping troops. The Austrians have a tradition of neutrality in European conflicts and have accepted many thousands of refugees.

The Germans claim their constitution prevents them from doing more.

The Islamic nations say they cannot secure action when the U.N. Security Council's permanent members (who have a veto) oppose it.

The Secretary General's office cites concern about the safety of U.N. peacekeepers and the organization's financial limits. The West cites Kuwait and Somalia to counter the suggestion that they care less about Muslims. The E.C. says the problem is too difficult.

There is some truth in each of these, but they do not explain why Bill Clinton and his administration so quickly accepted the limits on U.S. action in Bosnia that candidate Clinton harshly criticized.

Is it enough to say, as Mr. Clinton said to reporters, ''If you believe that we should engage these problems in a multilateral way, if you believe in what happened in a good way in Operation Desert Storm, then the reverse has to be true, too. The United States has got to work through the United Nations, and all of our views may not always prevail . . . ''?

Is Bill Clinton abdicating American leadership? Is he making the U.S. capacity to act in the world depend on a consensus of permanent members?

This position sounds good but is incompatible with U.S. commitments to NATO and with the kind of American leadership that spurred U.S. action in Desert Storm and in Somalia.

I believe that the failure of the United States, the West and the rest of the world to effectively oppose the aggressive policies of Slobodan Milosevic's government reflects leaders' failure of vision and political will -- a failure similar to that of the late '30s.

Ronald Reagan, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Secretary of State George Shultz, among others, made it clear months ago that they saw the situation differently than their governments see it and, were they in power, would take stronger action.

It is not too late for Bill Clinton to consider what kind of leader he desires to be and what kind of leadership he plans to offer the world.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the United Nations, writes a syndicated column.

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