PARIS -- The argument over removing U.S. forces from Bosnia next year is currently only a murmur in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. But it will grow loud indeed as NATO marches toward that June 1998 deadline.
A lesson about the ingredients of peace in Bosnia was provided last week by NATO arrests of two alleged war criminals, indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal. One of the two was seized and removed to The Hague; the other was killed by a British SAS unit while resisting arrest, with a British soldier wounded.
Another lesson about peace came with the violent collapse last week of the divided government structure the United Nations set up in tormented Cambodia: It demonstrated how flimsy foreign-invented political structures are likely to prove.
The Bosnian-Croat federation established by the Dayton agreement is highly artificial. Peace between the intransigent Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska -- itself in a leadership crisis -- and its Bosnian Muslim and Croat neighbors remains exceedingly fragile.
The Dayton arrangements, brokered by the U.S., will not survive a NATO withdrawal next year. Withdrawal, however, is what the U.S. currently promises. An argument continues between a group led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, favoring an activist U.S. European policy and continuing U.S. military presence in Bosnia beyond June 1998, and the American military leadership, led by Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
The military have never wanted involvement in the former Yugoslavia, and they want out of Bosnia next year. America's military leadership and the U.S.-dominated NATO command have stubbornly resisted pressure to arrest war criminals. It's suggested that last week's SAS operation was possible only because NATO was briefly between commanders.
Thus far, the withdrawal camp is winning the argument in Washington, since it has Congress on its side. The House of Representatives has already voted to withhold funds from any American presence in Bosnia past the June 1998 deadline, and the Senate has less dramatically expressed its reluctance to see Americans stay. All this is largely gesticulation, but it is nonetheless significant.
Congressional opinion reinforces the military leadership's reluctance in recent years to assign missions to American professional soldiers that involve serious risk to their lives. This has been the principal reason NATO has not attempted to seize indicted war criminals. Dangerous missions have been left to the professionals of other countries. The British carried out last week's arrests, and British, French and others did the U.N.'s dirty work there before NATO arrived in 1995. They took the casualties.
The American uniform is dishonored by this American claim to privilege. A White House dispatch after the British operation last week said American troops ''contributed transportation and other logistical support,'' which sounds like trying to appropriate some of the credit.
There are direct links between war-crime trials, America's decision on Bosnia withdrawal and the NATO expansion America has been determined to bring about.
The U.S. government and the American military cannot promote a policy of expanding NATO as the way to guarantee peace and stability in Europe, and at the same time quit Bosnia next year. Either NATO keeps the former Yugoslavia at peace and promotes a political settlement there, or it abandons the razzle-dazzle about peacekeeping, democracy, pan-European unification, and a New Atlantic Order.
The United States cannot have it both ways. NATO can continue to keep the peace in Bosnia beyond next June, with Americans fully engaged, and thereby demonstrate the will and capacity of an expanding alliance to keep the peace throughout post-Cold War Europe.
Or NATO can leave the people of the former Yugoslavia to resume their interrupted war, and thereby acknowledge that the claims Washington and Brussels have been making for the new NATO are nothing but international hypocrisy motivated by domestic vote-buying.
That last is what Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has said of the American position. He told Belgium's prime minister, in an overheard conversation in Madrid, that ''in your country or mine'' politicians who did what American politicians were doing about NATO ''would be in prison.'' The American decision on Bosnia will show whether Mr. Chretien was right or not.
If NATO is to build a more substantial political and security order in Bosnia, it must end the present policy of permitting indicted war criminals to continue to dominate the Republika Srpska, and to influence the affairs of the other two political entities in Bosnia.
These persons have to be arrested and delivered to the Hague tribunal. The Dayton agreement and the international effort in Bosnia are otherwise meaningless. The moral claims of international society are otherwise outraged, and the opportunity we now possess to deter some future war crimes by demonstrating that criminals are accountable to an impartial authority will have been ostentatiously abandoned. Are there votes to buy with that?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/17/97