Avoiding aid to Bosnia, U.S. acts disgracefully ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

August 19, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Is this a great country, or what?

On the same day that Britain, Ireland and Sweden were receiving wounded or sick Bosnian civilians, and newspapers and television were showing photographs and videotapes of war-maimed Bosnian children being evacuated, came the story of American humanitarianism for Bosnian -- believe it or not -- star athletes.

It seems the U.S. Olympic Committee is arranging to fly 28 teen-age athletes and two coaches out of Bosnia to live and train in the United States in preparation for future Olympic competition. The group, according to the committee, is to include 15 tennis players, 13 swimmers and two swimming coaches. The tennis players are slated to go to prominent U.S. tennis camps, including posh Hilton Head, S.C., and the swimmers and their coaches to San Antonio to train under a famous American coach there.

Harvey Schiller, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, says the objective is "to save a generation of athletes in Bosnia" who are "trying to train in a war zone." Footing the bill of $25,000 is an American insurance company that insures athletes for the Olympic Committee.

In normal times, this act might seem most meritorious. But with hundreds of women and children severely wounded by the bombs and shrapnel poured into Sarajevo in the past months, it seems almost ludicrous. Yet in this sports-crazy country, the plan no doubt will have a great many supporters and boosters.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration continues to look inept and indecisive in its proclaimed concern about the continued slaughter of the Bosnian Muslim population by Serb guns. While the signs are encouraging that the siege of Sarajevo may be lifting as a result of U.S.-led threats of military strikes by NATO forces, the American foot-dragging on humanitarian assistance has been a disgrace for the world's remaining superpower.

President Clinton, in his determination to act only in concert with American allies in Europe, has already marched up the hill and down again on one earlier occasion. And this time around, he has let the Bosnian Serbs and their masters in Belgrade play the United States for a sucker with their subterfuges and delaying tactics.

While it is all well and good for the administration to strive for multinational action to lift the siege of Sarajevo, there is little defense for failing to act forcefully and efficiently in the matter of pure humanitarian aid to the victims.

If there is one thing at which the American military is superb it is in its response to human tragedy. In times of earthquake, hurricane, flood or any other natural disaster and some man-made disasters as well, the U.S. military, as no other organization, has the knowledge and resources to bring swift and effective relief.

In Bosnia, American leadership is suffering severely, and so is the nation's reputation for humanitarianism. It may be politically and militarily prudent for President Clinton to have declined to commit U.S. troops to so-called peacekeeping duties in Bosnia under the United Nations flag. But failing to respond directly and decisively to the humanitarian needs there shines a spotlight of hypocrisy on U.S. policy.

The comparison with the commitment of U.S. fighting forces to defend U.S. oil interests in the Persian Gulf in the brief war against Iraq is unavoidable. The defense is that there is no clear American national interest in Bosnia. But at a minimum, it is in the national interest to preserve this country's reputation for good deeds in times of human crisis.

Fears of "another Vietnam" are a smoke screen for inaction. The United States has the power and independence of action to send a mercy fleet of aircraft into Bosnia with heavy fighter protection, pick up wounded and sick Bosnians by the hundreds, and fly them to safety and treatment, here or elsewhere. If there are attempts to interfere, the power to neutralize them is readily available.

Clinton is clearly reluctant to embark on any foreign involvement that can detract from his single-minded determination to put the American economy at home in order. But nothing would do more to bolster his image as a leader than going it alone now on a mission of selfless American humanitarianism.

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