The shame of Bosnia's tragedy

Anthony Lewis

August 16, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

THE WEST'S worst moral and political disaster since the Nazis is coming to a climax. And just as many politicians and institutions paid for the failure to stop Hitler, so many will pay dearly for allowing the Serbian tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, to destroy Bosnia.

George Bush will go down in history as the president who promised a new world order and then undermined it by his own weakness. The man who rallied the world to save the feudal regime of Kuwait and its oil did nothing to stop the dismemberment of a civilized country in Europe, or the genocide of its people.

Mr. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, helped to bring on the tragedy. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, in June 1991, he went to Belgrade and said the United States wanted to maintain Yugoslav "unity and territorial integrity." Mr. Milosevic took that as a green light to use the Yugoslav army against Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia as they declared their independence.

The European Community, that expression of hope for a united Europe, proved unable to respond to disaster on its doorstep. For that failure the Community has already suffered a profound loss of public faith.

The national politicians of Western Europe showed all the backbone of an amoeba. John Major of Britain gave a passable imitation of Neville Chamberlain.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, into which the United States and its allies had poured vast resources for 40 years to keep the peace in Europe, could not summon up the will to act. Its leaders devoted themselves to inventing disguises for their cowardice.

When there was a chance for significant NATO action, this spring, it was undone by the weakness of a second American president. Bill Clinton could have led NATO to adopt his policy of lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian victims and carrying out air strikes on the Serbian aggressors. But he did not lead, and Europeans depend on American leadership even to deal with European security problems.

The United Nations suffered grievous wounds. Its peacekeeping function, which has proved valuable in many places, was so grossly misused in Bosnia that the peacekeepers became handmaidens to genocide.

The U.N. forces were there to safeguard the bringing of relief supplies to besieged Bosnians. They had to beg Serbian killers to let them through. They did nothing to stop the Serbian murder and expulsion of Muslims. The U.N. troops did not even fire back when the Serbs deliberately rained shells on them.

In the end the U.N. forces acted as a protection for the Serbs against the threat of NATO bombing. Mr. Major and others with troops there opposed bombing because the Serbs might then attack their men.

The U.N. Security Council designated six "safe areas" for Muslims -- and then did nothing when the Serbs mocked the order. Roger Thurow of the Wall Street Journal, describing how Serbian tanks and howitzers fired every night into the "safe area" zTC of Bihac, correctly described the U.N. designation as "cruel and ludicrous."

Lord Owen of Britain, acting as an international mediator, went so far to make the Muslims sign anything that could be called "peace" that his reputation is gone. He reportedly is now urging the Muslims to let the Serbs have part of the besieged Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Can anything be saved from this record of folly and fear? Perhaps a little.

Mr. Clinton could finally push through his plan of bombing to break the siege of Sarajevo. That would not save Bosnia, but it would at least limit the terrible precedent of weakness before a tyrant. It could deter Mr. Milosevic from attacking more countries. And, most important, it would show that Bill Clinton has begun to understand the use of power in foreign affairs.

It is essential also to finance and carry out the U.N. Security Council resolution for a tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. If Mr. Milosevic and his cohorts are charged and refuse to appear before the court, they would be unable to leave the hellhole of a Greater Serbia that they have created.

But the inhumanity will remain unhealed. Looking at the scene in Bosnia, we should say what Shakespeare, in "Henry the Fifth," had the French noble say as he looked down at the shattered field of Agincourt: "Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame!"

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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