Outside Pressures on Bosnia

May 17, 1994

Behind all the talk of a new diplomacy uniting the U.S., Russia and Europe in the search for peace in Bosnia is an American retreat from untenable policy positions. Gone is the Senate-approved call for multilateral or unilateral lifting of the U.N. arms embargo that has hindered but not stopped the flow of weapons to the Bosnian Muslims. Gone is lip-service to a multi-ethnic state and acceptance of a European plan to partition the nation.

This is Clinton foreign policy in a realistic mode. It reflects what many officials have accepted as inevitable even if it does not match public rhetoric. Before foreign ministers met in Geneva last Friday to launch their attempt at a common approach, the U.S. had been essentially isolated by its negotiating partners. There was no support for lifting the arms embargo, a step that could intensify the conflict, nor was there any real expectation that partition could be avoided.

In conceding these two points, the U.S. appears to have softened French threats to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from Bosnia and Russian pressures to lift the economic boycott against Serbia. But these disruptive ideas, like lifting the arms embargo, could resurface if the Geneva call for a cease fire and a near-even division of Bosnian territory is ignored by the three warring parties.

The signs are not encouraging. The Bosnian government has all but acknowledged that it is getting arms shipments from Iran and elsewhere in violation of the arms embargo. Its forces appear stronger than ever and on the offensive. As for the Serbs, they continue their aggressive tactics.

At this delicate juncture, it would be well if the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma would leave diplomacy to their diplomats. The Senate, in a remarkable display of intellectual confusion, voted last week first for a multilateral lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia and then for unilateral U.S. action if needed. The Duma, furious at this American attempt to arm the Muslims, retaliated with a 270-1 resolution demanding the lifting of the economic boycott of their fellow Slavs in Serbia. Fortunately, the foreign ministers ignored this legislative grandstanding in Washington and Moscow.

Perhaps the U.S. lacks leverage to pressure the Bosnian government. Perhaps Russia does not have sufficient influence over the Serbs. But if these two big outside powers, along with France and Britain, can hold to the common policy forged in Geneva, this could be a precedent for eventual peace not only in the Balkans but elsewhere.

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