Bosnia and the Decline of the West

July 25, 1995|By CHARLES A. KUPCHAN

We Americans should hang our heads in shame. The Serbs are in the midst of cleansing eastern Bosnia of its Muslims. The dwindling Muslim population still alive in Bosnia is suffering grievously. And the Western democracies are doing little more than watching.

Granted, it is not too late to come to the defense of Sarajevo and the remaining territory still under Bosnian control. Nor is it too late to punish the Serbs for flouting virtually every international norm and making a mockery of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations and their members.

But it is too late to prevent what could prove to be one of the most devastating legacies of the slaughter in Bosnia: the rot of the West. Since the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Western democracies have exhibited such strategic myopia, moral weakness and political paralysis that their behavior calls into question the very existence of a Western community of civic states. Although the Serbs have not yet dealt the West total defeat, it is time to take stock and ask not what the war says about Serbs, Muslims or Croats, but what it says about us.

The United States and its West European allies have, from the outset, disagreed over how to deal with Yugoslavia's dissolution. In the name of preserving cohesion within the Western alliance, they drifted toward the lowest common denominator: sending to Bosnia lightly armed U.N. troops to deliver humanitarian assistance and dissuade the Serbs from more attacks on Muslim enclaves.

It is bad enough that the West offered Bosnia so little help. It is even worse that NATO has failed to live up to its promise to retaliate against Serb aggression and has instead stood by as the safe areas fall one by one. So much for the West's credibility.

To be sure, we should be wary of going to war to preserve credibility -- as the Vietnam War made clear. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and other architects of the war in Vietnam were wrong to think that dominoes fall. The defeat of South Vietnam and the consequent loss of U.S. credibility did not lead to the spread of communism and other more direct challenges to the vital interests of the United States.

Similarly, just because the West has not stopped Serb aggression in Bosnia does not mean ethnic groups all over Eastern Europe will rise up and commit genocide against their neighbors. Fortunately, few groups have become as infected with virulent nationalism as the Serbs.

But this argument misses the point. The real damage the Vietnam War did to U.S. credibility was at home, not abroad. Americans lost faith in their government and in their country's mission. The legitimacy of the American state began to erode and, with it, the central images that define American identity.

It is this notion of credibility that gets to the heart of why NATO's inaction in Bosnia is eating away at the West. The lifeblood of Western democracy is moral strength and civic society. These attributes undergird NATO, the European Union and the host of other institutions that make up the West.

But these institutions and the values they embody will not survive the apathy and paralysis that have greeted this most recent bout of genocide in Europe. NATO may still exist after a multiethnic Bosnia is long gone. But it will be a hollow shell, devoid of the sense of purpose that sustained it for almost five decades.

Although proximity should make the wail of a dying country louder in Europe than in America, Bosnia's vivisection is exacting its highest costs here in the United States. America's national identity is more infused with idealism and a sense of moral mission than that of any other country. As a multiethnic, immigrant nation, we define ourselves as members of a civic community, not an ethnic one. We are Americans because we share a political space knit together by common values and purposes, not because we share a common ancestry or culture.

The slaughter in Bosnia and our ineffectual response paints an ugly picture of America, painfully at odds with our own self-image. How can we look ourselves in the face when Sarajevo, a city as cosmopolitan as any in the West, is being strangled? This is why the powerful smell of rot is now filling our nostrils.

The West's death knell is already ringing in Sarajevo. Before it is too late, the West just might be able to revitalize and reconstitute itself. But this renewal will not come about of its own accord. And it will be an uphill battle: It is far easier to lose moral credibility than restore it.

For starters, the Western democracies must put a stop to the butchery in Bosnia. Even though it is woefully late, NATO should make clear it will carry out massive air attacks against the Serbs and lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims if Serb aggression does not cease. Needless to say, NATO must make good on its promise if its deterrent threats fail to stop the genocide.

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