Lessons of Bosnia

February 22, 1994|By William Safire

Miami -- THE siege of Sarajevo is being lifted by one new fact on the ground: the fear in the hearts of Serbian gunners that they will be killed by NATO bombs.

As this is written, the anti-war alliance has not had to carry out its threat; Serbian guns are being moved elsewhere. But as the same coercion is applied to attackers surrounding other Muslim enclaves, they, too, will be affected by the new balance of firepower. Thanks to the West's belated determination to intervene, we have come to the beginning of the end of the umpteenth Balkans war.

Delays and double-crosses lie ahead; the killing goes on. But if this application of collective power in the pursuit of peace succeeds, what lessons should we draw from it?

1. Strength saves lives. The "two tough Tonys" -- Lake in the White House, Lewis on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times -- were right all along. The only force able to stop an aggressor's domination is a believable threat of serious punishment. (A.M. Rosenthal's derogation of "laptop bombadiers" -- a nice coinage, on the analogy of "armchair general" -- was way off target.)

2. Weakness costs lives. The quagmirists -- Larry Eagleburger, Dick Cheney, Pat Buchanan and their amen cornerbacks -- appear now to be wrong in their fears of interminable involvement of U.S. ground troops. And all the military experts -- the same subnotebook soldiers who predicted in graphic detail a lengthy bloodbath if we invaded Saddam Hussein's fortified Iraq -- were mistaken about the efficacy of Sunday's real threat of air power. If "lift (the embargo) and strike (the besiegers)" had been carried out at the start, tens of thousands of Bosnians might now be alive.

3. A military ultimatum can create new diplomatic facts. Were it not for the certainty of NATO military action, the Russians would never have had the incentive to come up with their last-minute surprise to save face for withdrawing Serbians.

Now Boris Yeltsin gains the approbation of his nationalists by putting in a few companies of Russian soldiers, while Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo will have the company of friendly Slavic faces as Serbian guns pull back. Somehow the idea never surfaced until Serbian artillerymen were within hours of being obliterated.

Beyond Bosnia, a few unremarked lessons about communication the highest levels:

1. Secretary of State Warren Christopher can no longer fully trust Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. The two diplomats talked at length only hours before the Russians and Serbs announced their company-keeping deal: no specific heads-up -- nothing beyond the vaguest of hints -- was provided Mr. Christopher. Statesmen share a certain comity to avoid appearing foolish; but in this instance, Andrei delightedly stuck it to Chris, who then had to gurgle how helpful the Russians were being. Comity is now gone, and if the U.S. secretary of state is not a total wimp, he will no longer feel the need to notify his counterpart of every American demarche in Ukraine and the Baltics.

2. SecDef, call home. Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev did not try to pull a similar fast one on Defense Secretary William Perry. Unlike Mr. Kozyrev, Mr. Grachev reportedly passed the word on the telephone to his American counterpart that Russia's top special envoy was in Sarajevo discussing the dispatch there of Russian peacekeeping troops.

Mr. Perry, very good on the minutiae of Stealth technology, did not recognize the hottest piece of intelligence in the world. Incredibly, the new SecDef kept the vital information to himself.

Can you imagine the politically sensitive Les Aspin -- or Bobby Inman, for that matter -- failing to get on the hook to the president right away to say "I have it from Grachev himself that the Russians may be sending troops to Sarajevo just before our bombing starts"? This was apparently not on Mr. Perry's computerized checklist of things to warn President Clinton about.

3. The presidential hotline doesn't answer. Too many of us make light of the inability of the U.S. president to reach the Russian president for two days. Was Boris Yeltsin in a diplomatic snit, TC drunken stupor, a medical treatment or just out to be insulting? Who returns the call if somebody's missile goes astray? Lesson: stay in close touch with Mr. Grachev.

The biggest lesson of all: Thanks to our readiness to use force, Bosnians no longer must choose between death and surrender.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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