Preventing more Bosnias

A. M. Rosenthal

May 26, 1993|By A. M. Rosenthal

TWO tragedies are taking place in Bosnia. The first is the slaughter of its people. The second is the failure of the officials responsible to think seriously about how to prevent future slaughters in future Bosnias.

Maybe that is because those officials are still on the job -- in allthree sides in the civil war, in Europe and in the U.S.

Europe helped set the fire of civil war and it should have been Europe's to put out. But Washington, ranging from silence to utter incomprehensibility, dithers away the one plan for peace.

The record is clear. In December 1991, three men gave separate warnings to the European Community. They were Lord Carrington, the British diplomat; the U.N. secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar; and Cyrus Vance.

Germany was then demanding swift recognition of the independence of Croatia, part of the Yugoslav quilt patched together by Tito. Do that, said these men, and there will be war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian Muslims sent the same warning.

Germany prevailed -- and what the secretary general had called the Bosnian time bomb went off.

Until then, Serbian and Croatian Christians of Bosnia had been living in the same small area with other Serbs and Croats who had converted to Islam centuries ago -- not always in brotherhood but not at war with each other since the Nazis set many Croats and Muslims against Serbs.

Bosnia's present Muslims feared that with quick European recognition of Croatia, expansion-minded Serbia might swallow them. So they tried to get out, with a declaration of independence, even though they were less than half the population.

Christian Serbs in Bosnia preferred war to living as a minority in a new nation in what they had considered their own home. With heavy help from Serbia, they attacked. But they committed such outrages that they convinced the world they were invaders, although they were fighting in their native land.

The only peace plan for creating a mixed Bosnia -- the original Muslim hope -- came from the U.N. team of Vance and Owen. It provided for everything the current safe havens idea alone does not -- military withdrawals, arms reduction, return of refugees to their homes, a central government.

President Clinton and his aides attacked the plan. Most of American journalism said it was Munich and the solution was a good sound American bombing of the Serbs.

Mr. Clinton threatened that. But fortunately he could not figure out what he would do the day after the bombings. So he finally agreed that Vance-Owen was the path.

By then Bosnian Serbs had fought up from control of 40 percent of Bosnia to 70 percent. They knew they could not be driven out except by the ground war the West did not want -- not even the journalistic and congressional killer-doves. So they sent a message to Washington, in the clear: Go to hell.

Now Europe, Russia and the U.S. propose safe havens. By themselves they would lead to partition -- a slice each for Serbs and Croats and one for Muslims, while it lasts. But if they are made the first step to carry out the phased overall Vance-Owen plan, safe havens could keep alive the dream of the Muslims for one independent Bosnia.

Still now it has to be asked: Did the West really ever care about that dream, or see great self-interest in it? Never -- not until Western stumbling and Serbian atrocities made it a stomach issue.

More stomachs will be turned by civil combat in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Kashmir, the Middle East, Africa. It is not Western business to put out independence movements, or protect each one.

But countries that will have to rescue new nations in trouble should take an advance peacekeeping step: Impose a waiting period between declaration of independence and diplomatic recognition or U.N. membership.

During that time, the applicant should be examined for its chances of survival militarily or economically. If that is questionable, an international trusteeship should be created -- a specified period of protection and help, with specified goals.

So, to say it again: Since to save lives everybody has to pass an exam to drive a car, why not a test for nationhood, and help in passing it, to save a lot more lives? The need is plain, the warnings of December clear, and the only question is -- after how many more Bosnias?

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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