When neutrality fails

August 04, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Zagreb, Croatia -- IT'S ALL over.

The first multilateral experiment of the post-Cold War period -- the first attempt to show that the civilized world can and will solve ethnic wars -- has failed. In the end, this utopian experiment in neutralism didn't work for a very simple reason: It couldn't work.

Everybody here -- from the U.N. headquarters to the troops on the ground to the foreign ambassadors -- privately acknowledges that peacekeeping in Bosnia is finished, but it probably will not disappear completely for some months, during which time the situation here will unravel even further.

"The U.N. and collective mechanisms have not worked," was the way one of the city's leading foreign diplomats put it during the week I was traveling with United Nations officials throughout Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. "After the cold war, the mechanisms were just not mature. But if the U.N. forces (the BTC UNPROFOR) withdraw, now there will be all-out war here. It will most closely resemble World War II."

What will happen during a pullout of the 38,000 U.N. forces? "There are some frightening scenarios," one U.N. spokesman said, "like British troops being shot at by both sides."

I get no pleasure out of carrying such messages. The people who designed this key post-Cold War policy of non-use of power, with its strategy of not using force, are good, intelligent people. Which makes it all the more astonishing that they have done what they have done.

At one point, for instance, I posed a question on the "logic" inherent in the mission here to the top U.N. representative, the dedicated Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi. Was there not, I asked, perhaps some gigantic mistake over human nature underlying the policy the United Nations has pursued here?

"Your question is a haunting one," Mr. Akashi replied, "and it might lead to the conclusion that people might fight a bit more to have a better moment to make peace. But we U.N. people have a professional stake in stopping bloodshed."

He explained why the use of force -- in particular, the much-threatened NATO air strikes against the Serbs -- was impossible. "We would be perceived as the enemy and that would endanger our carefully constructed relations with the parties. We are impartial; we are in a war but we are not at war. Once we became a party to the war, we would have to liquidate our efforts -- withdraw or cut down."

Suddenly I understood a crucial part of the picture. As the rampaging Serbs took over 70 percent of Bosnia, leaving 200,000 dead behind them, the United Nations last winter finally appeared to agree to NATO strikes against the omnipresent Serb artillery positions. In Sarajevo, the threat worked and the Serbs withdrew.

But it was in the besieged city of Gorazde that the "U.N. mentality" revealed -- and neutralized -- itself. After air strikes were threatened there, Mr. Akashi refused to call for them and is proud today that he finally negotiated a kind of standoff. But U.N. officials never really intended to use NATO force at all. They innocently thought that the threat would be enough. The Serbs called their bluff, a moment when superior force could have halted the victories of the Serbs was lost, and now a big war beckons.

One could capsulize the U.N. intentions this way: They offered something that the Serbs didn't want in exchange for their doing what they had no interest in doing. To synthesize further the impossible U.N. mentality: In this mission, well-meaning "neutrals" threw away every maxim of warfare and insight into human nature that various cultures have discovered through the centuries. Apparently nobody here has read Shakespeare, much less Machiavelli or Sun-tzu.

And so now, three years after this nasty terroristic war started in the summer of 1991, the nicest people in the world have thrown away the best promise of the post-cold war period. This was the first period since the end of World War II when, with a little wisdom and leadership, the world could have been created anew.

Instead, largely because Europe and the United States did not want to act, the super-legalized and over-bureaucratized United Nations took over this first test-case mission -- with a rigid moral neutralism, a non-use of force and a utopian idea that fanatics like the Serbs can be won over by rationality. With this mentality, the approach soon became devoid of any sense of justice or any element of truth.

PD Not surprisingly, it failed. In truth, it could do nothing else.

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Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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