Air Power Can't Fail in Bosnia

ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

May 06, 1993|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

Silver Spring -- Unless the carnage in Bosnia now stops, the world community should bring force to bear: a U.N.-sanctioned, multi- national use of air power.

Some object that air power alone will not work. By ''work'' they mean compel the Serbs to cease their aggression and atrocities and to abide by the Vance-Owen plan. Whether air strikes will force Serbian compliance is an open question (although the way the Serbs have moderated their position every time the threat of international force has become more credible -- as in last weekend's signing of the peace accords -- affords some grounds for hope). But Serbian cooperation is, in any event, too high a standard for success.

By more reasonable criteria, the use of air power in Bosnia cannot fail. Military force will send the crucial message that conduct like the Serbs' incurs severe costs. Simply delivering that message will serve the evolving ''new world order'' well.

Ideally, the world's enforcement would assure that crimes against world order and international norms would go unrewarded. But it still advances the cause of a just world order to make sure that these crimes at least do not go unpunished.

Ideally, ''this aggression will not stand'' would be the world community's resolve wherever the aggression might occur. In reality, Bosnia lacks the oil that made Kuwait and Saudi Arabia seem worth taking great risks to protect. The world response, therefore, is likely to be confined to what can be done with minimal risk or cost -- which means air strikes and not ground forces.

A year ago international air strikes probably would have stopped this brutal war. Now, at the least, they will still send a powerful message to future would-be aggressors: that international norms and the will of the world community cannot be violated with impunity.

A year of international diplomacy without the use, or credible threat, of force failed to bring about a just settlement. Indeed, the negotiation process may have protected the advance of injustice on the ground by providing a fig leaf for the world community's self-imposed impotence.

Another part of that fig leaf has been economic sanctions, which also never gave realistic prospect of getting the Serbs to back off. At least sanctions, unlike diplomacy, imposed some small cost on the aggressors. But if the world community can greatly increase the costs on the aggressors, without greatly increasing its own vulnerability or burden, is it not obliged to do so? The use of airpower will do this. History sadly suggests that fighter-bombers, unlike economic sanctions, speak the language that people like these war criminals best understand.

In the absence of military action by the world community, lifting the arms embargo to supply the Bosnian Muslims with weapons does nothing to enhance world order. Helping partisans fight each other to settle their disputes merely helps preserve the deplorable old world order in which ''justice'' is but the interest of the stronger party.

It is this ancient and tragic fact of the international order that we should be steadfast in our determination to change. That is why a unilateral American action, unsanctioned by the Security Council of the world body, is likewise of limited value: There is nothing new about an order in which a great power can single-handedly bludgeon a small power into submission.

This is a rare and precious moment in history, when all the great powers are in relative harmony. The end of the Cold War (along with the precarious hold on power of progressive forces in Russia) has opened up a historic opportunity to move toward the realization of an old dream: a world in which it is justice enforced by power -- rather than the brute force of the contending parties -- that resolves disputes, a world where certain standards of conduct among nations are enforced.

Europe should be the core from which such an order can be built over the coming decades. If the world stands passively by while ethnic cleansing and concentration camps again darken the heart of Europe, we will have exchanged this bright dream of a possible future for the old nightmare of history.

Andrew B. Schmookler is the author of ''Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds That Drive Us to War.''

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