More than lives at stake in Sarajevo

Jonathan Schell

August 12, 1993|By Jonathan Schell

IN MAY, the Clinton administration arrived, after long and tortuous internal debate, at its moment of decision concerning American policy toward the dismemberment by Serbia and Croatia of the new state of Bosnia. It decided, in effect, to do nothing -- to leave Bosnia to whatever fate the force of arms and atrocity would bring.

What the administration literally did was send Secretary of State Warren Christopher to "consult" with European nations regarding an American proposal to "lift and strike" -- to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government and to strike at certain Serbian targets with air power alone. When the Europeans predictably demurred, arguing that these limited actions would place the European ground forces under U.N. command in Bosnia in jeopardy, the administration did not either insist or make any other proposal.

While the Clinton administration was making up its mind, protest against the world's inaction sounded in many quarters. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Secretary of State George Shultz were prominent among former statesmen and stateswomen who called for action. Columnists and other vocal people joined in the appeals. Intellectuals in France warned that failure to act would lead to the "spiritual death" of the idea of a United Europe.

In Congress and in the British Parliament, voices likened American and European policy to the appeasement of Hitler. When the Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, observers saw similarities between the Holocaust and the dissolution of the Muslim people of Bosnia. Coverage in the press and on television intensified.

Yet when the Clinton administration made its decision not to intervene, much of the attention and protest dissipated, as if the bare fact of a decision had resolved not only the question of policy but the moral question as well. Bosnia dropped out of sight. A kind of embarrassed silence fell. The ethnic cleansing and military aggression, however, continued, and were even stepped up. The debate ended, but the catastrophe that had been the subject of the debate continued to unfold.

Now, out of the silence, suddenly comes the report that the fall of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, to Serbian forces may be approaching. If this should happen, both the survival of the new-fledged state and the physical existence of the city and its people would be at stake.

When Peter Galbraith, the new American ambassador to Croatia, visited the area of Croatia now under Serbian control, he found a scene in which virtually "every house and church had been damaged or destroyed." Though it may seem hard to imagine now, there is no guarantee that Sarajevo will not suffer the same treatment at the hands of the Serbian forces moving toward the city.

If Sarajevo falls, the first thoughts of those on the sidelines must be for the people of the city. Yet the world's loss, too, would be immense.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, William Pfaff writes, "The West has managed to survive the totalitarian experience and the horrors then committed, constructing a novel community of liberal states that has seemed to contain in it a promise of expansion from its Atlantic and West European core, so as to bring other states into a moral as well as political community in which war has been ruled out as an agency of national interest. What has gone on in Yugoslavia constitutes a savage challenge to this order."

The Bosnian government, for all its shortcomings, has stood for the principle of the multi-ethnic state. On a small (and ever-shrinking) scale, it has used politics as the means to harmonize racial, cultural and ethnic differences. This is an art that not only Bosnia but the world urgently needs today. Peace among states, the brief history of the post-Cold War period tells us, depends on peace within states, and peace within states depends on the capacity of internal political systems to accommodate rival groups, even rival "nations."

You might even say that, in a time when the boundaries of once-sovereign states are everywhere blurring, the challenge for the international community is to find its way to flexible, open structures of authority that would give peoples the kind of rights that an ethnic group enjoys in a successful multi-ethnic state. In the former Soviet Union, for example, states, autonomous regions and religious and ethnic groups are seeking to invent the forms that will permit them to live in peace. It is a process in which the dividing line between domestic and "foreign" affairs is impossible to define.

If the world lets Sarajevo fall, it will not only have abandoned a people to horror but surrendered a portion of its own largest and best hopes in the post-Cold War period.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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