Still Time for a New World Order: Prodded by Congress, Clinton Lurches toward Leadership in Bosnia

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Still Time for a New World Order: Prodded by Congress, Clinton Lurches Toward Leadership in Bosnia

By Richard H. Curtiss

A side-effect of the war in Bosnia is confusion among die-hard America-haters in the Middle East. Millions of Muslims have grown up with the belief that the United States (and Western Europe) only arm Third World governments to hold down their own people while the West buys their raw materials cheaply, sells them its own manufactured goods at exorbitant prices, and debases their cultures and debauches their morals in the process.

U.S. arming of Israel, which exploits its captive Palestinian population and forces adjacent Arab and Islamic countries to buy U.S. arms to defend themselves, fits the picture nicely. However, the sincere although so-far ineffectual attempt by President Bill Clinton to mobilize NATO nations to intervene to save the Muslim-led Bosnian government does not.

Instead it reveals a knee-jerk American sympathy for history's losers, the underdogs, no matter their race, religion or economic system. That, in turn, explains much of U.S. 20th century history. President Franklin Roosevelt's persistent warnings and sanctions against Japan to halt its aggression in China prompted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that finally brought the U.S. into World War II. American public sympathy for outgunned North Vietnamese, in danger of being "bombed back into the Stone Age" by U.S. aircraft for no good reason and at the cost of many American lives, certainly played a major role in U.S. withdrawal from the civil war in that Asian country. Similar sentiments underlay the congressional ban on Reagan administration efforts to undermine the leftist Nicaraguan government, congressional opposition to U.S. support for extremist right-wing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and even recent U.S. disasterrelief efforts in Somalia and Rwanda.

Similarly, American public sympathy for Israel developed only after skillful orchestration in the media. That propaganda campaign had nothing to do with holding down Muslims, but was based upon creating a public perception that America was protecting beleaguered Jewish refugees from Hitler's death camps from being "swept into the sea" by "superior Arab armies," or from being murdered in their homes by "Arab terrorists."

In Bosnia the beleaguered underdogs have been the Muslims, the country's largest sectarian group, whose cities, towns and lands have been seized by Christian Orthodox Serbs using trained soldiers and sophisticated weaponry inherited from the once-formidable former Yugoslav army.

The results can be seen in Congress. Both houses now have called for a U.S. motion in the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo that is preventing the Muslim-led Bosnian government from obtaining arms to defend itself. If that motion is vetoed, both houses have called upon the United States to lift the embargo unilaterally.

Now the die is cast for serious U.S. action.

The House has been on record with a 244-to-178 vote for this approach since June. Now, under a Senate bill sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-GA) and adopted 56 to 44 on Aug. 11, a Security Council rejection of the U.S. motion would trigger a Nov. 15 cutoff of U.S. funds for enforcement of the embargo. Also on Aug. 11, the Senate passed by an even higher 58-to-42 vote an even stronger measure sponsored by Sens. Robert Dole (R-KS) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). It commits the U.S. to lift the arms embargo on its own by Nov. 15, with no intermediate steps stipulated.

Recognizing the strong pro-Bosnian sense of Congress, Clinton had tried to head off such votes by informing Congress that if the Serbs do not respond positively by Oct. 15 to the peace plan advanced by the "contact group" of France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., giving 51 percent of Bosnia to its Muslim (44 percent) and Croat (17 percent) majority and 49 percent to its Serb (31 percent) minority, he will introduce by Nov. 1 a Security Council resolution to lift the embargo on Bosnia. If the resolution is not passed, Clinton said, "It would be my intention to consult with the Congress thereafter regarding unilateral termination of the arms embargo."

Now the die is cast for serious U.S. action to disregard the shameful embargo. Nor will the U.S. be alone. Germany almost certainly will go along. Whereas Russia formerly threatened to veto lifting the embargo, that seems less likely since the Russians also were committed to the peace plan the Serbs have rejected. Britain, too, has withdrawn its threat to veto the motion. The major negative consequences of the U.S. initiative, therefore, are threats by Britain, France and Canada to withdraw their troops from U.N. peacekeeping forces on the theory that, if the embargo is lifted, Serbs will retaliate against the 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers currently in Bosnia.

Regardless of diplomatic maneuvers, heavy fighting already is resuming. Even if the Bosnian Serbs reverse themselves and eventually accept the international peace plan, the Muslim-led government is convinced that the Serbs will not voluntarily carry out the withdrawals the agreement requires within the 72 percent of Bosnia the Serbs now occupy.

Two Major Offensives

Even without a formal lifting of the embargo, with 200,000 Bosnian fighters now under arms and improvements in the training, discipline and coordination they lacked during the first two years of the war, the government forces hope to retake by force the lands allotted to them under the plan. They are beginning two major offensives. One is to push the Serbs out of artillery range of a new airfield the Bosnian government has built at Visoko to receive the military supplies expected to flow when the embargo is lifted. The other offensive threatens to close, with Croatian help, the corridor at Brcko that connects Serbia with Serb-held territories in western Bosnia and in Croatia. Actually closing this vital chokepoint could force the Bosnian Serbs to make peace, or it could trigger a major Serbian government-backed offensive to reopen the supply lines.

In fact, how Belgrade reacts to the initial rejection by the Bosnian Serbs of the peace plan, and possible later refusal by the Bosnian Serbs actually to withdraw even if they accept the plan, is the key to whether the war will be settled in the next few months, or will drag on "for 20 years" as some Western diplomats and military leaders have predicted to journalists. Both Russia, Serbia's supporter on the U.N. Security Council, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have condemned the refusal by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to accept the plan.

Milosevic, a former communist strongman whose political campaign for "Greater Serbia" first inspired the Bosnian Serbs to rebel against the Bosnian government, proclaimed a "blockade" against his former proteges in late July. Major bridges linking Serbia with Serb-held Bosnia were closed.

Cut off from fuel, ammunition and the rotating Serbian army units that have provided logistical support and even done much of the fighting for them, Bosnia's Serbs would be no match for vastly larger government forces, particularly now that the latter have access to the sea, a nearly completed airfield, and the potential of receiving heavy weapons and unlimited supplies of fuel and ammunition with the lifting of the embargo. The problem is that Milosevic proclaimed a similar embargo in May 1993, when the Bosnian Serbs rejected the now-defunct Stoltenberg-Owen peace plan. But Milosevic's action then was a sham designed to fool the West.

The current embargo may also be meaningless. Milosevic refused to allow U.N. observers to station themselves at the bridges and border crossing points. It's no wonder, since supplies clearly are getting through. Even Milosevic's cut-off of telephone service between Serbia and the rump Bosnian Serb republic turned out to be more apparent than real. Telephones of Bosnian Serb leaders and of their militias still are connected to Serbia through Serbian military switchboards.

Assuming the worst-case scenario, therefore, that the war continues to escalate and Britain, France and Canada carry out their threats to withdraw their peacekeeping forces, at least from exposed positions, what should the U.S. do? First, as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has suggested, NATO forces should respond more seriously to continuing Serb provocations. When Serb militiamen drive off with arms from U.N.-supervised collection points, rather than risk lives trying to find and destroy them, Lewis suggests NATO forces bomb the Serb military headquarters in Pale from which the Serb militias take orders. Also, if fuel, ammunition and weapons continue to cross the Drina River on bridges or rafts, bomb both.

Equally important is to ensure that the U.N. safe areas really become safe, particularly Sarajevo, Gorazde and other areas still too exposed to Serb forces to be defended solely by Bosnian government forces. If every mortar or sniper attack on civilians in either city draws an immediate NATO aerial response against a major Serb military target, the attacks will stop, and NATO will prove it has a serious post-Cold War role in halting aggression in Europe.

Most important of all, the U.N. economic embargo on Serbia and Montenegro should be tightened until the war is over, since it will not end until Milosevic withdraws all support from his unruly disciples. It probably was only tough statements emanating from Washington that induced him, once again, to proclaim an embargo. Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Perry now describes halting the warfare in Bosnia and the Balkans as a matter of "U.S. national interest," implying that application of U.S. military power is appropriate.

"Unforgiving Punishment"

David Gompert, a Bush administration senior director of the National Security Council staff, advanced a tough proposal in Foreign Affairs and the July 3 Washington Post that the West "wage a cold war against Serbia until a democratic revolution discards its criminal regime." Although it is no quick fix, Gompert predicted that "economic war in perpetuity against an unrepentant Serbia would send a strong signal to other tyrants that international aggression, whether it succeeded or not, would result in unforgiving punishment."

Only such systematic pursuit of short-and long-term foreign policy objectives, seemingly lacking to date in the chaotic Clinton White House and Christopher State Department, can solve the Bosnia problem, and prevent others like it from arising if Milosevic decides to send his ethnic cleansing brigades back to Croatia, or onward to Kosovo or Macedonia.

Last February, when NATO planes shot down two Serb planes bombing Bosnian towns and then halted the siege of Sarajevo with the threat of air strikes, the U.S. media derided the show of U.S. leadership, saying it was "too late" because "the war is over."

Much more recently, writing from Zagreb on Aug. 4, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, an articulate supporter of underdogs all over the world who personifies what's best in the American psyche, sounded a similar note of despair: "Three years after this nasty terroristic war started in the summer of 1991, the nicest people in the world have thrown away the best promise of the post-Cold War period. This was the first period since the end of World War II when, with a little wisdom and leadership, the world could have been created anew."

However, thanks to the determination of the multi-ethnic Bosnian government, whose army command still consists of a Muslim, a Croat and a Serb, and its desperate people, fighting literally with their backs to the sea, the war has not been lost. Nor has the opportunity for U.S. leadership to "create the world anew." With the embargo lifted, Muslim governments will fund the heavy weapons, and Bosnian government forces will use them to do their own fighting. All they are asking of outside supporters of human rights, racial and religious equality, and the rule of law--like the United States--is that they neutralize outside supporters of tyranny, ethnic particularism, and aggression--like Serbia.

Last April 24, former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman, who had just retired from the State Department, wrote these hopeful words in The Washington Post: "Now President Clinton is embarked on an effort to rally the international community around a more muscular use of airpower. His foreign policy has reached a defining moment. If, for whatever reason, he comes up short on the use of U.S. force, that failure will bring him most of the blame. If, on the other hand, he is successful in a major expansion of air strikes, then he has an excellent chance of driving the Serbs to a negotiated settlement that preserves a viable territory for the Bosnians. While the search for international consensus is necessary, the United States can no longer hide behind the international community. From here on out, Bosnia is an American problem."

In fact, the Clinton administration has two major accomplishments in Bosnia to its credit already. One is the agreement, negotiated in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and signed in Washington, that ended the fighting between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats and paved the way for the eventual confederation of the Muslim-led Bosnian Republic with the Republic of Croatia.

The second accomplishment is the "contact group's" peace plan itself. It is generous to the Bosnian Serbs, and this is recognized by their former friends.

Thanks to those two agreements, the opportunity for a U.S.-led international effort to restore the borders of the only multisectarian, multi-ethnic regime in the Balkans is just as real today as it was when Ambassador Zimmerman defined it last April, or when Ms. Geyer mourned its apparent passing in August. What's needed is American leadership resolute enough to convince allies to follow, and enemies to withdraw.

If President Clinton provides that leadership, he can redefine his administration's foreign policy. In doing so he may also help Americans to rediscover themselves, and people all over the world to relearn what America is all about.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.