The U.N. entraps Clinton

William Safire

August 31, 1993|By William Safire

MORE than 10,000 U.S. troops, drawn mainly from the 1st Armored Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, were on the verge of being sent as part of a NATO force to Bosnia-Herzegovina to impose the wrong peace in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Had the Bosnian Muslims bowed to Western pressure to accept the latest surrender terms proposed by the U.N. -- a humiliation Bosnia's parliament over the weekend unanimously rejected -- the U.S. forces would have become guarantors of a Munich-style sellout that would have created a gulag of ghettos and encouraged future ethnic cleansing.

How did the Clinton administration stumble to this brink?

First, by cravenly caving in to the French and British reluctance to arm the Muslims and to suppress Serbian-Croatian firepower from the air.

Second, by reacting to this allied rebuff with a foolish commitment to use our forces in NATO to support any surrender terms that the U.N. could work out.

Third, by abdicating operational authority to the U.N., thereby undermining our threats to use air power to stop the Serbian shelling of civilians -- at a moment when the only incentive to negotiate came from the possibility of our air attacks.

Fourth, by limiting our involvement in the peace negotiations to occasional expressions of distaste, as if to dissociate the U.S. in advance from betrayal of principle -- and then, behind the scenes, to urge the Muslim Bosnians to swallow the repugnant )) terms because U.S. protection would not be forthcoming until they gave up.

No doubt the Bush acquiescence two years ago in the U.N. cutoff of arms to the Bosnian Muslims was a diplomatic blunder.

But this year's false starts belong on Bill Clinton's doorstep, and his apparent willingness to use U.S. troops to enforce a U.N.-sponsored surrender will lead to Mr. Clinton's Balkan mess.

People of my strategic persuasion favored a hunkering-down of U.N. humanitarians on the scene while Western powers gave Serbian irregulars a taste of their own medicine. Such sustained bombing of artillery positions, supplies and bridges, combined with an increased blockade of Serbia and Croatia, would have set the stage for a partition that would not have left Bosnia an economic basket case, its survivors the world's wards.

Instead, what we have now is the undenied appearance of the promise of U.S. ground troop involvement in the U.S.-led policing of a surrender that the American people had no say in and want no part of. American lives would be at risk in a protracted entanglement where U.S. policy never came into play and U.S. diplomatic muscle was never applied.

No, thanks. The inept Clinton secretary of state has given a blank check to the U.N.'s Boutros Boutros-Ghali: You decide what the policy is to be and how much it will cost in lives and treasure, and the U.S. will obey.

Is America to be a payer but not a player? Even unreconstructed hawks get off the train at that stop.

When Mr. Clinton finally gives a speech wrapping himself in the glories of multilateralism, he will not be able to sell the U.N.-brokered surrender as remotely honorable, especially considering the U.N.'s one-sided disarmament. If he continues tacitly to endorse the U.N. deal, he could only plead that slow strangulation in ghettos would be better than quick death in war.

Such argument would draw derision from across the spectrum because America will not defend with its lives what it cannot defend with its conscience. The problem is not the Bosnian unwillingness to submit to hopelessness, like good victims; the problem is the Serbo-Croat demand for Muslim humiliation and the Western powers' lack of backbone.

What can Mr. Clinton do now? He can get on the hook to Mitterrand and Major with changes of the U.N. terms to give Muslim Bosnia some territorial contiguity and undisputed control its capital of Sarajevo.

He should arrange swift, certain NATO retaliation for any aggression during negotiations. He should set the terms for the participation of U.S. forces in NATO peacemaking, not make our troops pawns in U.N. hand wringing.

Time is running out, Mr. Clinton. Avoid the U.N. trap. Send Europe the message: Bosnia alive or NATO dead.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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