U.S. Overreach in Bosnia

July 28, 1995

Americans might not want to hear this, but neither the Senate's call for arming the Bosnian Muslims nor the Clinton administration's threats of massive air strikes against the Serb aggressors is likely to control events in Bosnia. Britain and France, which have put their soldiers on the ground as peacekeepers and have taken casualties as a consequence, will make the real decisions -- probably with plenty of input from Russia.

What hobbles American policy is the lack of a true commitment to end this latest bloodletting in the Balkans. This is not said in criticism. It reflects the fact that U.S. vital interests are not at risk and the likelihood that popular support for involvement would disappear with the first body bags.

Sixty-nine senators, ostensibly a veto-proof majority, may have assuaged their consciences by pretending they were giving the Bosnian Muslims a chance to defend themselves against the better-armed Serbs. But the gesture was a phony.

The United Nations arms embargo, under terms of the Senate resolution, could not be lifted until U.N. peacekeeping forces are withdrawn (presumably under the protection of U.S. ground forces) or 12 weeks after the Bosnian government asks the U.N. to leave. Under a last-minute amendment by Sen. Sam Nunn, the U.N. Security Council would have to give its (unlikely) approval.

Not addressed by the Senate resolution is who would finance the arms for the Muslims, where they would be obtained, why the Bosnian Serb forces would not attack before their enemies got new weaponry and what response could be expected from the pro-Serb Russians. No wonder all our NATO allies join with Russia in condemnation.

While the Senate resolution falls under the weight of its own illogic, only slightly more credence can be given to the Clinton administration desire to rely on massive air power as a clean, low-casualty remedy to the Bosnian muddle.

It might appear the NATO Europeans have been muscled by Washington to go along with this arrangement, even though it could put their soldiers in acute danger. Also, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali has turned his control over air strikes to the British and French generals in command of U.N. forces. But it is yet to be seen if these officers will approve much action short of provocative Serb attacks on Gorazde, where NATO powers have drawn a line in the sand. Their writ, or their intentions, are even shakier when it comes to Sarajevo, Bihac or other so-called "safe areas."

This crisis comes soon after the West's victory in the Cold War -- a 40-year triumph of American leadership during which no blood was spilled. But there is also the history of U.S. reluctance to get involved in European conflict and the national aversion to casualty risks after Vietnam and even Somalia. Given this reticence, and the reduction in U.S. influence it implies, the Washington political establishment should become more modest in presuming to oversee the Bosnian civil wars.

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