A Lebanon in the Balkans

JEFFREY RECORD

May 12, 1993|By JEFFREY RECORD

Washington. -- A decade ago 241 U.S. Marines were killed in Lebanon by a lone terrorist driving a truck loaded with explosives. The attack compelled a humiliating withdrawal of American ''peace-keeping'' forces that had been placed in militarily indefensible positions in Lebanon, and which had come to be seen as taking sides in a fierce civil war in a country where the United States had no vital security interests.

Our disastrous experience in Lebanon should stand as a warning to those who are now calling for direct U.S. military intervention against continuing Serbian aggression in old Yugoslavia.

There is no question that Serbian aggression is the primary -- though by no means the only -- source of the present bloodletting in the Balkans, and that it has been attended by numerous and often large-scale atrocities that easily meet the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.N.'s recent establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute those guilty of perpetrating such outrages as mass rape and outright genocide is a welcome development.

But it is equally clear that the United States has no compelling security interests in the Balkans. Even during the Cold War the region was a strategic backwater, and I subscribe to the traditional view that the United States should resort to war only on behalf of threatened interests deemed vital to our national security and well being. Our present humanitarian intervention in Somalia is an exception, but Operation Restore Hope, launched by a post-election-depressed George Bush who wanted one last time to play commander-in-chief, never involved any risk of significant armed resistance.

There is also the question of whether anything short of massive intervention on the ground, which a few have proposed, could stop the Serbian (and Croatian) rampage in Bosnia-Herzegovina and deter the Serbs from turning next to Kosovo and Macedonia. Saddam Hussein's survival and continued defiance of the world underscore the difficulty of translating even the most stunning military victory into a decisive political outcome.

Moreover, the operational environment in the Balkans, unlike that of the Persian Gulf War -- but very much like that of Vietnam, is distinctly unfavorable to our military forces and style of warfare. A discriminating and decisive use of American firepower would be barred by the region's mountainous and heavily foliated terrain, the proximity of Serbian forces to the civilian populations they seek to ''cleanse,'' and Serbia's suicidal military tradition. Even punitive air and missile strikes against military and economic infrastructure targets inside Serbia itself, an option that some have called for, might not have any more political effect than the seven years of U.S. air attacks on North Vietnam had on the Hanoi regime.

The one measure that could significantly increase the price of continued aggression for Serbia without risking direct American military entanglement in the Balkan tar baby is the same one we effectively employed against Soviet forces in Afghanistan: Arm the victims of aggression. In 1991 the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on all the constituent republics of old Yugoslavia in the hope of averting civil war. But a civil war is now in full swing, and it makes no sense to continue to embargo Serbia's victims.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia have a moral and legal right to defend themselves from Serbia's vicious aggression, but they are grossly outgunned by Serbian forces, which inherited all of old Yugoslavia's formidable naval, air, tank and other conventional military forces. As in Afghanistan, however, the invader's military superiority can be seriously compromised by transfer to resisting forces of such small and relatively easy to operate weapons as hand-held anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.

Arming those who can and will resist was always a more promising option than buying into a negotiated partition of Bosnia of the kind proposed by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Britain's Lord Owen. Serbia's rape of eastern Bosnia demolishes any hope for the Vance-Owen plan, which never amounted to much more than a feckless capitulation to Serbian aggression in Bosnia and to Serbian negotiators in Belgrade who have repeatedly duped the mediators.

Indeed, a frustrated Lord Owen now favors air strikes on Serbian lines of communication in the event of continued Serbian intransigence. The time has come to stop trucking with war criminals about a negotiated settlement that no brave band of lightly-armed peace keepers can be expected to enforce. Serbian extremists want empire and revenge more than they want peace, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher should not have committed the U.S. even in principle to providing tens of thousands of ground troops to police a partition settlement.

Three times in this century America has intervened militarily in Europe's affairs because vital U.S. interests on the Continent were being threatened -- by actual German aggression in 1914 and 1939, and by the specter of Soviet aggression in the late 1940s. Such interests are not present in the Balkans today. Even if they were, we should not be prepared to place our young men and women in harm's way in the absence of strong allied participation.

Our NATO allies, who do have important interests at stake in the outcome of the present conflict, have so far shown a willingness to treat only the symptoms of Serbian aggression rather than its source. They have no right to expect us to do more.

Americans are tired of saving Europeans from themselves.

Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun, and is the author of ''Hollow Victory,'' about the Persian Gulf war.

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