The war that no one wanted

April 14, 1994|By A. M. Rosenthal

PRESIDENT Clinton, after overriding the publicly stated opinions of his own secretary of defense and top military officer, sent U.S. airplanes into action in Bosnia by the decision of a British general.

How often, how hard and how deep will U.S. planes strike again?

Americans may find that the answers depend not so much on their elected president and constitutional commander in chief as on the opinions of that British general and his international staff, the wisdom or rage of the Bosnian Serbs, the political and military maneuvering of the Bosnian Muslims, and emotions and internal struggles in Russia.

All this is vivid in the minds of American policy makers in Washington. They are nervous about it. It is not a situation or a position any American president has found himself in before.

But it is the inevitable result of the earlier Clinton decision to use American air power to lift the siege of Sarajevo. As predictable, that made the Serbs pull back and brought about the relief of Sarajevo and its citizens.

The Sarajevo action was popular in the U.S. It saved the lives of the people of the city -- without loss of American lives.

If the U.S. could have ended its involvement right there, by brokering a peace, everything would have been fine -- a Clintonian triumph.

But as also entirely predictable, the Serbs did not just lie down or give up what they had been fighting for -- a strong separate Bosnian Serb republic, not a Bosnia where they would ever find themselves a minority to a Muslim-Croatian majority.

And, as also predictable, the Muslims saw the U.S. action in Sarajevo as the opportunity to bring more U.S.-NATO intervention against the Serbs, and win back more of the Muslim villages and land seized by Bosnian Serbs. U.N. officials do not know whether it was the Serbs who provoked the battle for Gorazde, supposed to be a safe city, or Bosnian Muslim forces barracked in the town.

Just one more predictable thing: Those Americans who have long lusted for large-scale bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs The possibility of shooting between the U.S.-NATO and a Russian-Serbian alliance is too horrible to contemplate.

and Serbia were not satisfied with the Sarajevo action. They saw it as the beginning of American military involvement in the war, not the end.

What was not predictable was that the political and possibly military price of American intervention could be raised by a country Washington had forgotten had a stake of its own -- Russia.

Russia's swift support of Serbs and the dispatch of its own troops to "aid" the U.N. were helpful at first. But it was a plain sign that Moscow would not surrender a pro-Serbian role in Bosnia -- particularly on future interventions.

The possibility of shooting between the U.S.-NATO and a Russian-Serbian alliance, or of Greece, Albania and Turkey jumping in and recreating 1914 80 years later is too horrible to contemplate, which is why Americans should start contemplating.

I think the Clinton team made a mistake getting the U.S. into a situation where foreign generals and foreign governments can decide when American bombers take off. There is the American president, telling us it was not really his decision. Are we hearing right?

On Sunday, the U.S. thought it might have a Bosnia-wide agreement in a few days. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said so on TV. But just before the tape was shown, the word came that Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the British commander to whose genius Washington has committed itself, had asked for the strike against Gorazde to protect a dozen or so U.N. soldiers in the town.

U.S. officials concede that coordination between General Rose and the peace negotiators was, how to put it, imperfect.

But the president, Mr. Christopher and Anthony Lake all long for a cessation of hostilities throughout Bosnia. That is not only their job, but having entered a war the American public does not want to fight if it costs anything, it is now their responsibility.

Peace is now impossible without a real U.S.-Russian effort; no more "Oh, I thought somebody told you" excuses to President Yeltsin. The Russians will have to pressure the Serbs again toward peace. The U.S. will have to start pressuring the Muslims.

The laptop bombardiers will scream Munich. The Clintonians can reply by whispering the name of the city where World War I started.

A. M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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