U.S. Intervention in Bosnia Unforeseen consequences: Muslim-Croatian offensive against Serbs could wreck settlement

September 20, 1995

AMERICA'S INVOLVEMENT in foreign wars invariably has consequences -- some good, some bad, virtually all unintended or unforeseen. History generally judges the outcome of World War I a disappointment, of World War II a success; of Vietnam a failure, of the Persian Gulf war a victory.

It is, of course, far too early to know the results of the U.S. intervention in the ethnic wars of the former Yugoslavia. But at this stage, this much is clear: By coming forcefully to the aid of the Muslim-Croatian alliance against the Bosnian Serbs, Washington has materially changed the balance of power in favor of the alliance. Washington's protestations of neutrality notwithstanding, the launching of U.S.-NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb military targets threw Serb forces into retreat after more than three years of aggression.

Timing was crucial, if not minutely planned. Pressure from a two-year U.N. economic embargo had caused Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to stop arming his Serb compatriots in Bosnia. A mid-summer offensive by Republic of Croatia armies had overrun the Serb-controlled province of Krajina -- adding tens of thousands of Croatian Serb refugees to the sad mosaic of uprooted peoples.

As the fortunes of war shifted, the Clinton administration abandoned a policy of passivity and entered the Yugoslav conflict, militarily and diplomatically, at what appears to have been an opportune moment.

But this week, unintended consequences also intervened. Croatian and Muslim armies, emboldened as never before, sent Bosnian Serb forces reeling to the point where their central strongpoint of Banja Luka was threatened.

American officials suddenly had to worry that the military shift had gone so far that peace negotiations would collapse. Though U.S. officials did not seek to have Banja Luka declared a U.N. "safe area," they sought the same objective de facto with a warning to Croatian and Muslim forces. "The light here is red. . .," proclaimed Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. "Go back to the negotiating table."

Let us hope the Croats and Muslims take heed. Their capture of Banja Luka would double the refugee problem overnight and raise the grim specter of Serbia's intervention -- a development that could bring in Croatia and dangerously widen the war.

Any settlement at the negotiating table will require policing by a multi-national force that could include as many as 25,000 U.S. troops. In such a situation, no Americans would want their soldiers tagged as "enemies" by any of the parties in the Bosnian war.

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