The Troublesome Victims Refuse to Give Up

February 17, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The United States now has a policy on Bosnia. As a result, NATO has such a policy too -- for the moment, although Britain, Greece and possibly others in NATO are not really committed to that policy. NATO's policy also appears to conflict with the United Nations' policy.

The result is that the American/NATO policy may very well fail. The U.S. must bring Britain and the U.N. into line, which it can do if it is determined to do so. However, unless this policy can impose itself upon the Serbs of Bosnia, next week could bring still another humiliation to that fabulous entity ''the international community,'' and another blow to the prospects of peace and order elsewhere in ex-Communist Europe.

American policy is first of all to end the siege of Sarajevo. This is in order to get Sarajevo off the television screens and permit the Clinton administration to present itself as having ''done something.'' Those are not the most creditable of motives, but, together with French government urgings -- the result of identical considerations of domestic politics in France -- they have forced Washington to make up its mind, and NATO's mind as well.

The ultimatum NATO has delivered to the Bosnian Serbs demands that Serbian heavy weapons be withdrawn from around Sarajevo or placed under U.N. control by Sunday midnight. U.N. authorities on the scene, including the British general currently in command of the U.N. Protection Force there, argue that ''control'' means that the U.N. knows where the weapons are, with the possibility of destroying them if the Serbs try to use them.

Since destroying the weapons would require the U.N. Protection Force to attack the Serbs, the U.N. commanders clearly are not being serious. They do not intend any such attack, whatever the Serbs do, and the Serbs, of course, understand this.

U.N. commanders have consistently raised obstacles to military action against the Bosnian Serbs because it would mean trouble and danger for U.N. troops, and also because the professional Serb command has been, of all the contending forces around Sarajevo, the easiest for U.N. military people to deal with.

As in the European Community negotiations in Geneva late last year involving Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, a certain implicit complicity has grown up between aggressors and peacemakers in order to get things done and minimize the inconveniences to peacekeepers and mediators. It is the victims who are making trouble by refusing to give up. The United States now is making further trouble by supporting the victims' claim to a better settlement than the Serbs and Croats wish to give them.

Washington's policy was articulated February 11 by Peter Tarnoff, under secretary of state for political affairs: When the siege of Sarajevo is lifted, the war must be given a negotiated settlement, and the U.S. will put new pressure on the Bosnians to make such a settlement. This settlement must meet the ''reasonable requirements'' of the Bosnian government, as the Bosnians have been the chief victims of the war. The Bosnian Serbs will have to make large concessions.

If the Bosnian Serbs (and Serbia itself, which created and sponsors the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb government) do not make new concessions, new pressure will be put on them. Croatia is expected to play ''a helpful role,'' but if it does not, pressure will be applied there too. Mr. Tarnoff said nothing about what these pressures would be, but previous discussion in Washington suggests that they could include lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, or even giving the Bosnians military support.

Once an agreement is found, and there is evidence of its acceptance in good faith, the United States is prepared to send ''implementation forces'' to help police the settlement. The caveat about ''good faith'' aside, this amounts to exactly the program of military intervention to impose a settlement that everyone, from the beginning, has warned against. By refusing every opportunity for limited intervention early in the crisis, the Western powers are ending by committing NATO to their worst-case scenario.

However, as the Serbs are unlikely to cooperate, the U.S. and NATO are likely to be spared that scenario. The alternative, however, is also unpleasant, implicating the United States and its allies in widening the war. It is to adopt some version of the program known to Washington as ''lift and strike'': air strikes against the Serbs, while lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia.

This involves no foreign troops. The U.N. troops already in Yugoslavia undoubtedly would be pulled out. The war would get worse. This course would mean leaving the three sides in this war to discover for themselves the limits to which they are prepared to go.

In that respect, this policy possesses a certain moral gravity absent before, when the international community tried to spare everyone the consequences of what they were doing, and tended as a result to facilitate aggression.

By offering some support to the side that has attempted to cling to the values of Western liberal society, the policy also would offer a moral coherence to Western policy that has been absent before. It is a terrible alternative. However, it is a coherent policy.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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