A Leaky Umbrella is Better Than None

January 15, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

NATO's failure of will over Serbia's aggressions has sown panic throughout Eastern Europe. That is what NATO's crisis of identity at the Brussels summit, and what the urgent demands of former Soviet satellite states to join NATO, are about.

President Clinton probably reasserted American leadership with the Partnership for Peace plan. It makes gestures of protection for these countries without commitment.

This is a reasonable compromise and first step toward a security umbrella for Eastern Europe. It is meant to make future Russian rulers and generals believe that the West would not allow a Russian reconquest of Eastern Europe.

It has not, however, reassured Poles, Hungarians, Czechs etc. that the West means it.

President Havel of the Czech Republic has chosen to see the plan as half full, and President Walesa of Poland to see it as half empty. (Poland is closer to Russia than the Czech Republic is.)

Many Eastern Europeans, especially those whose traditional national church is Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox, see Serbia as a metaphor for Russia.

Most troubling to them is that Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant opposition leader in Russia, does, too. He is frankly pro-Serbian on grounds of tradition and religion, whatever the merits of any dispute, and talks of aiding Serbia.

NATO has once again threatened to bomb Serbian positions. Last August it issued such a warning in behalf of Sarajevo, that is, in behalf of Bosnian civilians. The new statement seems related to protecting NATO member peace-keepers, not Bosnian Muslims.

President Clinton publicly chided his allies for making a threat they are probably not prepared to carry out. Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnia's Serbs, immediately brushed it off. He has faced down so many Western threats he does not believe any of them.

Early in the game of Serbian aggression against Croatia and Bosnia, President Slobodan Milosevic backed down every time the West issued a credible threat, and resumed aggression when the threat proved hollow.

As a precedent for settling the affairs of Europe, the Milosevic slogan of ''All Serbs in One State,'' is a prescription for endless war of all against all.

If Serbia can grab any land where Serbs live and kill or evict others who live in the way, why cannot Albania do the same? Why not Hungary? The same logic gives Turkey claims on Bulgaria, and Russia claims on just about everywhere.

Membership of NATO means that an attack on Iceland or Portugal is an attack on the United States, and we will risk even Baltimore in defending it. The West understandably does not want to give that power to President Walesa's unknown successors in Poland, who might not be as responsible as he is.

Only this week a Latvian local official with no powers of arrest nearly brought about the Russian invasion of Latvia by arresting three Russian generals. No one would want to give him the ability to bring the U.S. into war with Russia.

But what the Eastern Europeans see is that, despite crocodile tears, nobody in the West would stop Serbia's aggression against a Bosnia whose independence was internationally recognized.

And nobody has stopped Serbian forces from methodical rape, torture, murder, forced evacuations and razing of heritage in parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

They fear a power much greater than Serbia, and want greater protection than Bosnia has. They thought that by heroically overthrowing Russia and communism they had earned it.

The trouble with Western inaction on Serbian aggression is that the moral is clear. Aggression is rewarded. It is a role model for others.

This is not really what Britain and France and Germany and President Yeltsin of Russia want the moral to be. What they have really accomplished has been to avoid repeating World War I. None of them has intervened in the former Yugoslavia against the other.

This is no mean accomplishment. But it is facing the past, not the future.

The destruction of Sarajevo and Bosnia -- which now seems inevitable -- will not bring peace in our time. Everyone in Eastern Europe knows that. That's why they desperately crave the NATO umbrella. It may leak, but it is the only umbrella they see.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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