Playing with the Arms Embargo

November 15, 1994

Everyone involved in U.S. foreign policy-making had better study the effects of President Clinton's order ending U.S. enforcement of the U.N.-mandated embargo in the Adriatic against arms shipments to the Bosnia-Herzegovina Republic. It is an example of misguided congressional policy-making and a sample of more likely to come.

Two amendments to the defense appropriations bill in August instructed President Clinton in contradictory terms. He has followed the more moderate, proposed by Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. The other, sponsored by then-minority leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., would have the U.S. contravene the arms embargo, which it is not doing.

Following congressional mandates, the Clinton administration tried to persuade the U.N. Security Council to lift the embargo and failed. It tried to persuade Serbia to accept an internationally brokered peace agreement, and failed with respect to the Bosnian Serbs.

Accordingly, Mr. Clinton commanded U.S. forces in the Adriatic to cease enforcing the arms ban against Bosnia. But he is not contravening the ban and not preventing British and French frigates from enforcing it if they can do so without U.S. intelligence.

The immediate effect of this is a crisis in NATO, because the British and French continue to support the ban and will not let the Security Council remove it. They have troops in Bosnia, protecting civilians, whom they feel might be targets of Serbian reprisals otherwise. The crisis is sending the NATO secretary-general, Willy Claes, to Washington this week in hopes of seeing President Clinton upon his return from Asia.

Second and third effects were to cheer the Bosnian government and bring out the usual threats of reprisal from Bosnian Serb leaders.

Where the order has no effect is in the Adriatic. Bosnia was arms-starved at birth, but its alliance with Croatia has opened secure land and coast-hugging routes. Bosnia always wanted to get arms off the shelf in Eastern Europe paid for by Islamic countries, which appears to be happening.

Senator Dole proposed that the U.S. supply arms. That is not relevant if the embargo leaks, though the new Congress might now want to force the president's hand.

In addition to doing communism's work in destroying NATO, there is a second reason why this is a bad idea. Except for this ban, which slipped in as Yugoslavia changed status, virtually all U.N. Security Council mandatory sanctions are instruments of U.S. policy. If the U.S. sets a precedent for disregarding them unilaterally, it would undermine its own policies elsewhere in the world.

If the presidential order harms U.S. interests without helping Bosnia -- as seems likely -- it will have been an inept gesture compelled by Congress. That is what Republicans in Congress should be looking at as they decide what to do with all the power they have just won.

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