Our stake in Bosnia

November 28, 1995|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

BROADWAY, Virginia -- Should we support the sending of American troops to help enforce the peace agreement in Bosnia? I say, emphatically, yes.

Those who oppose this mission argue that the war in Bosnia does not jeopardize any vital American interests. They argue further that American lives should not be risked if our own vital interests are not at stake. I disagree with both points.

The moral climate

We should recognize that we have interests at stake in the moral climate of our civilization -- in such questions as whether might makes right and whether crime pays -- just as vital as our more material interests in access to Arabian oil.

Just think of how much our image of our civilization, our vistas of what is possible in this post-Cold War world, our sense of ourselves as a species have been degraded by the past four years as mass murder, ethnic cleansing and systematic rape have been perpetrated before our eyes in the heart of Europe while the world just stood by.

But even if we grant that it would not affect our vital interests for thousands more to be raped, dispossessed or murdered in Bosnia, I would challenge the idea that therefore we should not make sacrifices and take risks to rescue a few million people from this nightmare.

Let me ask you: Is that the kind of country we are that we will do only what we think will benefit ourselves?

It is remarkable that often it is the same people who argue that the United States is a Christian nation, and that prayer should be restored to the schools, who say we should stay out where our interests aren't at stake. What kind of Christianity do they have in mind who seem so little inclined to apply the Golden Rule? It's easy enough for the citizens of the world's mightiest nation to say that everyone should defend his own interests. But how would you like others to do unto you if you were part of a weak and vulnerable people being ravaged by stronger neighbors?

Our foray into Somalia seems now generally regretted, since a score of American lives were lost. There's no gainsaying the loss, but just how should it be weighed against the probable quarter of a million lives that were saved because Americans put their lives on the line?

People say, the United States shouldn't have to serve as policemen to the world. They're right: No one nation should have that authority or that burden.

A multilateral force

But in the proposed Bosnia mission the American forces are an essential but minority element in the multilateral force. As a part of humankind, let alone as the world's greatest power and would-be moral leader, don't we have a responsibility at least to do our part?

Many of the same people who say the U.S. should not be the world's 911 also disdain any form of multi-lateralism. But if the U.S. is not to be the world's policeman, and if the countries of the world together are not to join to do the job, the only alternative is no police -- which means anarchy, where the weak are at the mercy of the strong.

Why are so many of the people who are so willing to join together to fight crime within our own borders also so wiling to leave the larger world a cruel jungle rather than work with other nations to enforce some basic standards of justice and humanity?

A world community that polices itself is new in human history, and the structures for achieving this are predictably flawed and incomplete. Whenever our forces are to be put in harm's way -- in Bosnia or elsewhere -- we should make sure their mission will be well conceived, well equipped, and properly structured and commanded. But where any deficiencies are discovered, the proper response is to remedy them, not to use them as excuses to abandon an otherwise worthwhile mission.

A higher standard

It is the emerging possibility for multilateral actions by the world community that gives the most promise -- at the end of this terrifying century -- that the level of humankind and its civilization might be raised.

If the people of the world's greatest power choose not to contribute to that elevation but instead to retreat into the selfish pursuit of our narrow interests, America will have abdicated its oft-proclaimed role as moral leader of the world's nations.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution,'' the second edition of which was published this year by SUNY Press.

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