Scenario for Madness

June 01, 1995|By Jonathan Clarke

FOR 40 years, NATO kept the peace in Europe without firing a single shot in anger. Following the end of the Cold War, this happy state of affairs has come to an ironic end.

Since February 1994, NATO planes have attacked ground targets in Bosnia on average every 60 days. They are at it again now -- not, it seems, with any strategic purpose in mind but because, as at Waco, Texas, the authorities have simply lost patience.

"Frustration is reaching a point where people are saying enough is enough," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili has commented.

When warning of the dangers of "permanent" alliances, the Founding Fathers were foreshadowing exactly these risks.

During the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization served a vital purpose. But by keeping the alliance alive beyond its useful life, American policy-makers risk seeing the United States sucked into obscure wars where the American interest is slight and where the American role -- as in Bosnia -- makes a bad situation worse.

To argue for American disengagement from such entanglements is not isolationism. It is common sense.

The futility of NATO involvement in Bosnia should by now be obvious. In a rational world, this fact should produce a rethinking of NATO expansion plans. Far from it. Defying the military adage of never reinforcing failure, NATO expansionists in the administration and Congress are intent on wading into new security obligations in Eastern Europe.

If these plans come to fruition, the headlines will soon start to fill with the names of hitherto unknown cities that, in some $l mysterious way, have become American targets or protectorates.

Take, for example, the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca in western Romania. Of course, you haven't heard of it -- any more than of Tuzla or Srebrenica two years ago. This will change. NATO expansion will place cities like Cluj-Napoca astride new fault lines in Europe, with the likelihood of dragging the United States into the medieval recesses of central Europe.

Romania is an ethnically complex state. On a national basis, ethnic Romanians form the overwhelming majority. However, one province, Transylvania, is inhabited by a sizable Hungarian minority.

The Romanian government argues that it has bent over backward to accommodate the reasonable demands of the Hungarian minority for cultural, religious and administrative freedom. It has set up a council for national minorities, welcomed the election of 200 Hungarian-speaking mayors and provided mother-tongue education.

Naturally, the Hungarian minority sees things differently. Its representatives accuse the government of expropriation, gerrymandering and forced assimilation.

Using techniques borrowed from the American civil-rights movement, they deploy statistics to argue that they are underrepresented in senior civil service, academic and police positions. Their ultimate demand is for complete autonomy.

The Hungarian government supports this demand. Hungarian nationalists go further in speaking of reincorporating Transylvania -- once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire -- into the mother country.

As in Bosnia, the specific rights and wrongs of the situation can be argued indefinitely. But there is some good news. Behind the scenes, mainstream politicians from the Romanian and Hungarian communities put aside their belligerent rhetoric and work well together.

Left to their own devices, therefore, there is a good chance that the various ethnic communities in Romania will find ways to live ++ with one another.

NATO expansion plans, alas, jeopardize this delicate balance. If, as is currently envisioned, the first wave of new members includes Hungary but not Romania, the West will in effect be taking sides with the Hungarians against the Romanians, much as NATO has sided against Serbia.

It is anyone's guess what effect this will produce in Transylvania. One eminently possible scenario is that the Hungarian minority will be emboldened to stiffen their demands; another is that the Romanian majority will take preemptive action to safeguard their prerogatives. Cluj-Napoca, home of the Hungarian nationalist party, could be where the street violence starts.

The end point is unpredictable. But all too likely, NATO will be drawn inexorably into the dispute. Once again, F-16s will be summoned to action.

NATO planners brush such objections aside. They want a new mission to keep the alliance in permanent being.

Two hundred years ago, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson foresaw this danger. As NATO missiles crash into Bosnian hillsides, we should listen to the voices of these wise men.

Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington.

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