Clinton Reversal on Bosnia

May 20, 1993

The Clinton administration has immersed itself in the chil waters of Balkan realities. Out of this experience, one so different from campaign muscle-flexing, has come the prudent but unheroic decision not to get sucked into the Bosnian quagmire. Indeed, Secretary of State Warren Christopher used the Q word, a word loaded with Vietnam memories, when he told Congress this week that U.S. policy must be "carefully weighed with a clear view to what U.S. interests are." "At heart," he declared, "this is a European problem."

In retreating from President Clinton's earlier militancy and passing the buck to the Europeans and the Russians, Mr. Christopher opened the administration to charges of spinelessness and immorality. He seemed to invite criticism by describing the conflict in former Yugoslavia as "a war of all against all" in which there have been "atrocities on all sides." This was a far cry from previous U.S. attacks on Serbs as the chief aggressors.

What caused this reappraisal is more than Mr. Clinton's usual vacillation. In less than a month, the Europeans have rebuffed U.S. proposals for air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces and/or a rearming of the Muslim population. Croats have assaulted Muslim towns with a ferocity once patented by the Serbs. And the Bosnian Serbs have rejected the Vance-Owen peace plan to divide Bosnia into ten separate enclaves in which the three warring tribes would be splotched all over the landscape rather than placed in contiguous territories.

As Mr. Christopher reversed course, the Russians came up with the idea of injecting United Nations forces into the struggle in a phased attempt to enforce the Vance-Owen plan. In terms of military feasibility, this is as unpersuasive as the Clinton "lift-strike" plan. Mr. Christopher spoke of the need for "new approaches" even as new approaches were taking form on the battlefield itself.

What may be Bosnia's fate, and what may be the only means of stopping endless fighting, is a partition of the country that would involve further mass movements of population. Under a plan advanced by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, his compatriots would occupy a horseshoe-shaped territory contiguous to Serbia, the Bosnian Croats would get a big chunk of land adjoining Croatia and the Muslims would be confined to a central area including Sarajevo.

Is this outlandish? After wondering aloud whether the Vance-Owen peace plan is still alive, President Clinton declared: "The map has always been in question." These words may foretell a seismic shift toward full partition.

The international community should not add to its many blunders by enshrining a Bosnian state that was rather mindlessly admitted to the full-sovereignty club. Now that the Clinton administration is ready to take the heat for accepting cold reality, should keep pushing for creative solutions that will not ensnarl the United States in a morass where U.S. national interests are not at stake.

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