Bosnia: NATO vs. the U.N.

William Safire

August 10, 1993|By William Safire

FOR ONE glorious moment a week ago, it seemed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers in Brussels had finally agreed to get tough with Serbian leaders who had been jerking the world's diplomats around for the past two years, making a mockery of collective security.

Word came from NATO headquarters that a list of targets had been selected for air strikes to break the siege of Sarajevo and save the lives of its Muslim residents. The targets were not just Serbian artillery positions in the hills pounding the populace, but fuel and ammo dumps, supply lines and bridges, and "those responsible Bosnian Serbs" -- meaning the contemptuous thugs with stars on their shoulders who have been directing mass murder with impunity.

Word was simultaneously pumped out of Washington that the Clinton administration had adopted a new, resolute "don't ask, tell" policy -- asserting the need for air intervention now to stop the bloodletting. Reporters were told that this time, the president would not allow the British and French to dictate the dithering. "Coercive diplomacy" would become the order of the day.

And what happened? The psychiatrist who fronts for the Serbian strongman took note of these delusions of potency and, as usual when the West has a brief fit of conscience, promised to stop the shelling and to allow relief convoys in. Then, as Western huffing and puffing subsided, the tough cop leading the Serbs added a few conditions that vitiated his nice cop's seeming concession. The noose tightened on Sarajevo.

The clue that emboldened the Serbian leaders was the agreement between the chief of NATO's southern forces, U.S. Admiral Jeremy Boorda, and the French general commanding U.N. forces in the Balkans, Jean Cot. Its essence: The U.N. has a veto over any NATO air strike. The decision to direct Boorda to subordinate his command authority to the U.N. was made by the president of the United States.

Mr. Clinton's "don't ask -- tell" thus became "don't ask -- beg." The U.N. "protective force" in the former Yugoslavia is mainly concerned with protecting U.N. distribution of food and bandages, and not in protecting Muslims from Serbian guns. The U.N. commanders are afraid that if NATO forcibly lifts the siege, resentful Serb militia will attack the scattered 25,000 U.N. forces.

Thus, President Clinton has placed responsibility for the decision to attack aggressors in the hands of U.N. commanders most fearful of a counterattack. That means the U.N. force protects the Serbian attackers. Again Mr. Clinton can say it's not his fault: TTC From the previous "the allies won't let me do it," he moves to "the U.N. won't let me do it."

If he wants to stop the killing, here's how:

1. Tell the U.N. to assemble its forces in a defensible position, hunker down and get out of the way. This is known as sending the Serbs a signal.

2. Tell the Bosnian Serbs they have until Friday noon to cease firing everywhere, to withdraw all forces from within 50 miles of Sarajevo, and not to interfere with any relief supplies anywhere -- or else. This is known as an ultimatum.

3. Inform our European allies that if NATO is not empowered to make good on this ultimatum, the United States will accelerate its drawdown of forces in Europe to 20,000 monthly until no U.S. troops remain. This is known as coercive diplomacy.

Will this double ultimatum work? We have tried the handwringing approach for two years; that has brought tens of thousands of casualties, Western self-disgust and the erosion of American leadership.

By denying Bosnia arms for self-defense, the West insured that Muslims would lose the war. Now the Serbs want not only the land they have seized, but the total humiliation of the defeated by denying them even sovereignty in Sarajevo. When does injustice become intolerable?

The quagmire-mongers ask: "But what if bombing doesn't work -- are you prepared to send American ground troops into Bosnia?"

The answer is: Give bombing a chance. If sustained bombing of the targets on the NATO list fails, the West can debate about flinching later. Nothing would be lost "if bombing doesn't work" that is not being lost now. At worst, we would have put a heavy price on aggression; at best, we will save thousands of human lives and establish the world's right to intervene.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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