Use force in Bosnia

Anthony Lewis

April 15, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

APART FROM humanitarian concern, President Clinton has profound stake in the horror of Bosnia. It is the world's belief in his will to use American power.

Belief in American power has for many years been the most effective deterrent to international aggression. It is more crucial than ever in an increasingly chaotic world, a world with only one superpower.

Credibility is undermined if petty tyrants treat the United States with contempt and get away with it. And that is exactly what Serbian leaders are doing in Bosnia: carrying out their policy of genocide with more and more open contempt for the United States and, specifically, for Mr. Clinton.

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic went out of his way a week ago to speak contemptuously of Mr. Clinton. He said the Clinton policy on Bosnia had "encouraged" every Serb. His meaning, deliberately insulting, was that he was confident Mr. Clinton would do nothing as the Serbs "cleansed" Bosnia of Muslims.

Reports from the scene said the Bosnian Serb leaders no longer feared the possibility of American intervention. And so they were ready to capture Srebrenica and its 60,000 Muslim inhabitants -- and then, very likely, to begin an assault on the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

At the top of the Clinton administration -- Secretary of State Christopher and evidently the president himself -- there seems to be a belief that letting the Serbs finish their "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia will have no effect elsewhere. It will be just a small Balkan disaster.

But that is a delusion. The leaders of North Korea, Iraq, Libya and other recalcitrant states are watching to see whether Serbia can get away with defiance of American wishes and interests.

The credibility of American power, once a president lets it be lost, is extremely hard to recover. Jimmy Carter learned that painfully. For all his important international contributions, such as Camp David, he lost the confidence of Europeans by uncertainty and never recovered it.

So what should Mr. Clinton do in Bosnia? There is only one answer: Use American military force.

A team of experts sent to Bosnia by Christopher has reported exactly that. It recommended military intervention to set up and protect "safe havens" for Bosnian civilians being shelled by the Serbs.

The expert team said relief efforts, on which the Clinton administration and European leaders have focused their efforts in Bosnia, did little to address the real cause of civilian suffering. That is the Serbian attacks.

As a reason for inaction, Clinton spokesmen point to the argument of Britain and France that if we intervened militarily, the Serbs would attack their troops serving with U.N. relief forces -- and Bosnians dependent on the relief would then starve. The British pressed the argument on Mr. Clinton even before he took office.

The Christopher expert team's findings undermine that argument. They show that food is not the problem so much as straight-out slaughter of civilians by Serbian gunners. In any event, American helicopters could supply isolated Bosnians.

The right course for Mr. Clinton is clear, and do-able: Tell the Serbs to stop the sieges of Srebrenica and Sarajevo at once. And if they ignore the ultimatum, use American air power to take out their guns.

If Srebrenica falls, Mr. Clinton and the credibility of American power in the world will also be victims.

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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