NATO Air Strikes in Bosnia?

January 12, 1994

Embarrassed by a record of empty bombast, NATO continues to trip over itself in dealing with the murderous civil war in Bosnia. By renewing its threat to launch aerial strikes at Bosnian Serb forces hindering United Nations relief operations, it once again faces the risk of ending up doing nothing or getting entangled in a conflict practically of all its members would rather avoid.

President Clinton has demonstrated American clout by bringing Britain and France into line behind long-held U.S. offers to use its air power to end the "strangulation" of Sarajevo and (this is new) open the air field at Tuzla and enable Dutch peacekeepers to relieve Canadian troops at Srebrenica.

Demonstrably, the Atlantic Alliance would like to show a capability to halt the most deadly conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. But the United States, having been burned in Somalia, is reluctant to put any ground troops at risk until the contending Serb, Croat and Muslim forces sign a firm peace agreement. Mr. Clinton held to this position at the Brussels summit despite increased pressure from France. The decision to order air strikes now rests with U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. He and the Clinton administration have had differences a-plenty.

It would be a tremendous accomplishment if a series of neat, clean bombings could bring Sarajevo's long agony to an end and bring peace negotiations to a conclusion. Already 200,000 persons have died in the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia, and 2 million have been made homeless. But several harsh questions need to be asked.

What is the strategic, as opposed to the tactical, goal in unleashing air strikes against Serb forces? Is it to protect just those "safe zones" designated by the U.N. or to hit at Serbian troop concentrations throughout Bosnia? And if Bosnian Croat forces also are on the offensive, would they too become U.S. targets? How can Muslim forces be prevented from resisting an agreement in order to keep NATO forces engaged, to their advantage? What developments must take place before the aerial mission can be halted? And what happens if there is a peace agreement and fighting resumes, especially if American peace-enforcing troops have been dispatched to the area of hostilities in the interim?

President Clinton's patience with his British, French and Canadian allies had obviously been stretched to the limit by their refusal last year to approve air strikes. He insisted repeatedly at Brussels that new threats should not be issued unless alliance members shared his firm resolve to carry through. The result was one of those summit "successes" that can easily go sour or be forgotten.

Obviously, the international community's search for a way to restore some order to the chaotic post-Cold War world is bound to go through many a bitter trial. Bosnia is such a trial. It is bitter indeed, and far from over.

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