A fool, a rogue, a farce

Anthony Lewis

August 11, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

THERE is a form of classic farce in which the fool places his trust again and again in a rogue who tricks him every time. He learns no more from experience than the animated cartoon creature who is repeatedly flattened.

The United States, the West Europeans and the U.N. have all played the part of the fool in their dealings with the Serbian aggressors in Bosnia. The Serbs promise to be good this time, the fools believe them, and the Serbs immediately renege on their promise.

The promises have come whenever it looked as though the outside world might act to stop the Serbian aggression. Last spring, for example, when President Clinton seemed to be ready to use force, President Milosevic of Serbia surprisingly endorsed the Vance-Owen peace plan. But when the threat evaporated, the Bosnian Serbs scorned the plan.

The latest version of the farce has just been performed. As the Serbian assault came closer and closer to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, Clinton once more sounded serious. He pressed the NATO allies -- really pressed, this time -- to agree to air strikes on Serbian positions.

Bosnian Serb leaders reacted at once. Dr. Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic met with the U.N. commander on the scene and said they would withdraw their forces from mountains overlooking Sarajevo. They also promised to open roads to the capital that Serbs have blocked for 16 months, and to restore electricity, water and gas supplies.

The U.N. commander, Lt. Gen. Francis Briquemont of Belgium, showed great relief. He and his colleagues feared that the U.N. forces in Bosnia would be attacked by Serb armies if NATO began bombing.

In NATO, European resistance to an air campaign seemed to stiffen. Under pressure from the Europeans, the Clinton administration agreed to let U.N. officials veto any proposed bombing targets.

What happened next? Why of course the Serbian leaders began to take back their promises. There were conditions. They would not, after all, lift the siege.

The question now is whether Mr. Clinton has finally learned, and will act on, the simple truth about Serbian promises. That is that Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic understand only one language: force. Unless they believe that Mr. Clinton will act, they will forget their latest promise.

It is a question primarily for Mr. Clinton because the others are determined not to understand. The U.N. secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has opposed forceful intervention at every stage. Such European leaders as Prime Minister John Major of Britain have no stomach -- no backbone might be a more accurate word -- for resistance to the Serbian mass murderers.

The stakes are profound: not just the lives of Bosnians but the hope of heading off more ethnic and religious terror in much of Eastern Europe. Sen. Bob Dole was right when he wrote in the Washington Post a week ago that American weakness in the face of a third-rate power like Serbia "is exactly the type of invitation dictators and aggressors dream of."

Mr. Dole urged Mr. Clinton to call on NATO for an ultimatum to the Serbs: Stop blocking relief convoys, carry out promised cease-fires, hand heavy weapons over to the U.N. and disband Gen. Mladic's militia. If not, we carry out air attacks: with the approval of the U.N. Security Council or, lacking that, going ahead on our own under the U.N. Charter provision for collective defense when a member state is attacked.

To be effective, in my view, the ultimatum to the Serbs would have to be more explicit: Stop firing within 24 hours or we bomb artillery positions. On day two we take out Mladic's headquarters in Pale. On Day three we attack military targets in the privileged sanctuary of Belgrade.

Firmness toward the aggressor should have come long ago. At this stage it seems that all American policy is trying to achieve is a division of Bosnia into three ethnic units, saving a tiny bit for the Muslims instead of total gobbling by the Serbs and Croats.

But Mr. Clinton might at least restore a little faith in American will. He might at least show that a superpower will not forever play the fool to aggressors. And he might still save some innocent Bosnian lives.

History repeats itself, Marx said, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But the Bosnians go on living the tragedy.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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