Bosnia, the Country, Never Really Existed

December 11, 1994|By ROBERT M. HAYDEN

The failure of the United Nations, NATO and the international community in Bosnia is prompting a great deal of recrimination in Washington, and between the United States and its Cold War allies.

What it does not seem to be prompting is a rethinking of the single greatest policy error that accounts for these failures: the recognition of a Bosnian "state" that was rejected by a large proportion of its supposed citizens, the Serbs of Bosnia and the Croats of Herzegovina.

The independent Bosnian state that we recognized never existed on the ground, and the government that we support has never controlled much of the territory that we claim it should.

Essentially, the United States chose to back a dead horse, and gave the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the task of making it run. That our policy has failed is not surprising.

For Bosnia to exist, it would have had to be imposed by force on the large part of its population that had already rejected it. Since such a war of conquest was never in the cards, Bosnia never had any chance to exist in its recognized borders. Pretending otherwise was wishful thinking raised to the point of utter recklessness, because the Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats were determined to escape Bosnia by force if they could not do so diplomatically.

Thus, the United Nations was brought in to manage an impossible situation. It has had to pretend that the Bosnian Muslims form a government, when that government is rejected by the people who control about 90 percent of Bosnia.

That the United Nations has failed to end the war is not surprising. To end it on the terms insisted upon by the "international community" requires the political equivalent of resurrecting the dead.

NATO, in a job for which it was never designed, has done no better. NATO was excellent at keeping the Soviet Union from invading West Germany. Not surprisingly, it has been less effective at keeping the Serbs and Croats of Bosnia from destroying a state that they do not accept as their own.

Essentially, we proclaimed a house divided to be a condominium, but too many of the tenants preferred to destroy the structure in order to rebuild their own houses.

American culpability in this disaster is high. Bosnia was recognized and put into the United Nations at the insistence of the Bush administration. This was an error. The American ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time has acknowledged this, saying: "We thought we could prevent the war by internationalizing it, but we were wrong."

Since taking over in 1993, the Clinton administration has compounded the errors of its predecessors. The war could have been over in August 1993, when the Croats and Serbs accepted the Owen-Stoltenberg plan for disguised partition of Bosnia.

The Muslims tentatively accepted the plan, only to pull back when the State Department urged them to reject it. Since then, America has offered no realistic plan to end the war, but it has dTC raised several ways to spread it. The latest is arming the Muslims, the way we armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. A check of the Afghan situation these days shows that such a course is disastrous for the very people we are claiming to help and would amount to destroying Bosnia in order to save it.

In fact, the United Nations has been doing an excellent job of feeding the people of Bosnia. Those American politicians who want the U.N. to pull out now at the start of winter are calling for the abandonment of thousands to cold and starvation

It is particularly outrageous, as the British have said, that some of the same American politicians who call for more war in Bosnia bear some responsibility for the disaster that has taken place there.

Sen. Bob Dole is especially culpable. In 1990 and 1991, Mr. Dole called for the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, despite warnings that such a course would produce a ghastly civil war. The action that the senator advocated was taken, and the results were as disastrous as he was warned that they would be.

Decency requires that Mr. Dole now work to end the war rather than once again advocate a course that would lead to more death and horror.

After the fall of Bihac, the elements of a settlement in Bosnia are clear. The Bosnian Serbs and the Herzegovinian Croats have won the war, and no Bosnian state will be imposed on them.

A settlement that grants the Bosnian Serbs the same right to "confederate" with Serbia that the Herzegovinian Croats have to confederate with Croatia would preserve the fiction of a Bosnian state, which would exist in the United Nations but not on the ground.

The Serbs would retain territory that is connected, defensible and economically viable. The Muslims would be left with a rump Bosnia, in control of a central "government" with no power over the Serbs and Croats.

This would be a terrible outcome, leaving Bosnia to a future of permanent hostility, arms races, border wars and oppression. Unfortunately, it is the only outcome that could have been reached once the destruction of the former Yugoslavia was accepted.

Yugoslavia was built on the premise that the Yugoslav peoples were so closedly related that they could live together, and so intermingled that they had to do so.

Acceptance of the view that they could not coexist meant the forced partition of the regions where they lived together, particularly Bosnia.

At this stage, those American politicians who support more war should have the decency to be still, and let the United Nations feed the population until the division of Bosnia is finally accomplished.

It is a tragic outcome. But would greater death and more tragedy be more moral?

Robert M. Hayden is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and a specialist on the former Yugoslavia and its successor states.

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