PARIS -- The NATO Intervention Force in Bosnia has from the start considered the Hague International Tribunal and its war-crimes prosecutions a troublemaking element in its mission to implement the Dayton accords.
NATO and its chiefly American commanders are to blame, but so are the policy people in Washington, who blundered in thinking that leaving Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic loose in Bosnia would cause less trouble than arresting them and sending them to The Hague for trial.
Now the blunder is home to roost. Dr. Karadzic is doing to NATO and the international civilian authorities in Sarajevo just what he did to their United Nations and U.N. Protection Force predecessors. He is bluffing and blackmailing them, making the threat that to come after him will exact a cost they are afraid to pay.
The uses of Milosevic
Washington has counted on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to handle Dr. Karadzic. Mr. Milosevic has been useful in so many other ways, as he in turn has used Washington and the international community to extract himself from difficulties created by the war he began, that they thought he would also hand over Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic.
He had indicated that he would -- Dr. Karadzic, at least. (He warned that General Mladic was better left where he was, in Bosnia, since he was the only man who could control what remains of the Bosnian Serb army.) He certainly has no love for Dr. Karadzic, who is dangerous to him.
However, his decisions are governed by the sovereign interests of Slobodan Milosevic, not those of Washington, and there are circumstances in which to have Dr. Karadzic in Bosnia defying NATO may be useful to Mr. Milosevic's own game.
Conditions in Serbia are extremely difficult at the moment. The economy has not improved since international sanctions were lifted. Mr. Milosevic has clamped down on what survives of Belgrade's free press and radio, and is again stirring Serb nationalist passions with respect to the Muslims of Kosovo. His own interests might be served by ratcheting up tension -- even by having sanctions reimposed, so that Serbia's distress can be blamed on the U.N., not him. Mr. Milosevic won't go hungry.
IFOR's reluctance to arrest war criminals may be considered a professional deformation, as armies do not like to fight, and the American army in particular has always, in its corporate heart, been an engineering and logistical organization more than a warrior band.
The United States Army has never forgotten the lesson of 1865, when the application of brute industrial strength and scorched-earth warfare by Grant and Sherman produced the surrender of Robert E. Lee, a masterly strategist and ''great captain.''
When Gen. George Joulwan, NATO's commander, briefed the press in late March, his news was not that NATO was bringing peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that it had mounted ''about 2,500 to 2,600 air flights, about 350 trains and about 50 ships'' in order to put in 60,000 men ''in the worst winter in this century in the Balkans in the most difficult terrain.''
One could see what most interests General Joulwan. When his commander, the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, Gen. John Shalikashvili, was asked in April about NATO's arresting war criminals, he replied ''Absolutely, I'm against it.''
Another NATO officer later added, for those who needed an explanation, the telegraphic phrases ''slippery slope . . . Somalia . . . not trained as policemen.'' The press has not helped by asking in nearly every NATO press conference whether ''mission creep'' has begun.
Mission creep would begin if Dr. Karadzic's guards and sympathizers resisted his arrest, even though IFOR's 60,000 men with their 350 trains and 50 shiploads of tanks and armored personnel carriers, and their planes and helicopters, do not lack the means to impose their will, even on General Mladic.
No longer plausible
The policy of not arresting war criminals was politically (x defensible when there was reason to believe that Mr. Milosevic might deliver up his subordinate, or dispose of him. That no longer is plausible, so neither is the policy.
Principle and practicality are at stake. The principle of the tribunal's existence is to demonstrate that when atrocious crimes against humanity are committed, justice will be done -- at least in some conspicuous cases. This is meant to make others, in the future, think twice.
Practicality says there will be no election of value in the Serbian-held part of Bosnia-Herzegovina so long as Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic are not removed. There will be no room for a rational politics to emerge in the Republika Srpska -- something which had begun to occur in Banja Luka, where the Bosnian Serbs' parliament is located, and where people exist who are in touch with reality.
There will be no new Serb leadership. There will be no end to ethnic separatism. There will be perpetuated hatred. The ''successor'' just named by Dr. Karadzic, Madam Biljana Plavsic, is an even better hater than the doctor himself. There will be no end to the war in Bosnia. There will only be an end to the peace which NATO now briefly provides.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/23/96