Deeper into Bosnia

March 01, 1994

American involvement in the Bosnian war deepened yesterday as NATO for the first time in its 44-year history engaged in hostilities and the United States for the first time in its entire history engaged in combat with Bosnian Serbian forces. As could have been predicted, it was a one-sided battle: Heat-seeking missiles fired by U.S. F-16 Falcons shot down four Galeb fighters, a type of aircraft flown by Serbia and its Bosnian Serb allies.

What is a lot less predictable is how the latest escalation will affect the fragile peace process and the U.S. role in the 23-month-old conflict. Bosnian Serb forces retaliated with a renewed artillery barrage against Tuzla, a Muslim stronghold where any attack on United Nations peacekeeping forces could trigger the kind of NATO bombing attack only narrowly averted last month when Serbian forces around Sarajevo bowed to a U.N. ultimatum.

Russia, despite its historic ties to the Serbs, gave its assent to NATO's response to what appeared to be a clear violation of the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone. American aircraft patrolling the zone spotted half a dozen Galebs making "a bombing maneuver" against Muslim targets and unleashed their missiles when two warnings were ignored.

As is usually the case when the U.S. first engages in a new military operation, the action drew support from allies and leaders of both parties. The U.N. commitment to the no-fly zone concept was so strong and the violation so apparent that NATO had little choice. Alliance credibility remains at stake and seems to increase at every provocation.

The American crossing of this latest threshold toward entanglement in the Balkans came one month before U.S. peacekeeping forces are to withdraw from their ill-starred humanitarian adventure in Somalia. There, a popular undertaking soured after U.S. forces took casualties from Somali factions that turned against their would-be benefactors. And with that souring came a reevaluation of the Clinton administration's inclination to put U.S. troops under U.N. (and possibly foreign) command.

This problem was avoided during the Bosnian incident because the U.S. aircraft were operating under the command of an American admiral implementing NATO's enforcement of Security Council resolutions. So far, the U.S. involvement in Bosnia has been strictly limited to the air despite appeals from NATO allies for ground forces. But if current peace negotiations produce an agreement among the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims, President Clinton has promised a potentially significant U.S. ground contingent. Chain of command questions might then arise again, especially if Bosnian Serbs vent their anger at U.S. intervention.

These are some of the implications Americans should consider as the Bosnian conflict enters its newest phase. The American action yesterday appears justified under the circumstances, but where does it lead?

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