Bosnia Proves Nothing about NATO

By Birch, Timothy J. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

Bosnia Proves Nothing about NATO


Birch, Timothy J., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The cease-fire in the Bosnian war is on the verge of collapse; the prospect of peace talks is dim. af The record of those institutions directly involved in attempts to end the war is poor. NATO, less an architect than a victim of the carnage, has been singled out for a rhetorical pounding.

Critics charge that the credibility of the alliance has been undermined by vacillating Europeans who will not face facts as they are on the battlefield. Essentially, the argument runs, the Serbs have secured their political objectives by force of arms. Unless measures are taken to restore the military balance among Bosnian Serbs and the government forces of President Alija Izetbegovic, there is little prospect of an enduring peace settlement. Hence the "lift and strike" policy advocated by Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich late last year.

Such strong criticisms are unfair to NATO, for they follow from an unbalanced assessment of the Bosnian conflict and do not acknowledge that NATO inherited a mess created by others.

Disagreements appear to be intractable over the five-nation Contact Group plan to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina on the basis of a 49 percent share for the Serbs. If we want to thrash about in an attempt to identify the morally culpable party, that too is complicated. True enough, Serbs have committed atrocities, but that is a common feature of this war. The United Nations has proved that Muslims have covertly fired on Muslims in an attempt to elicit Western support for substantial military intervention against the Serbs. Moreover, the notion that Serbs alone are aggressors cannot explain why the Muslim V Corps used a U.N. safe area as a staging point for an offensive last November.

For NATO, the crucial question has always been whom to intervene against. Had NATO adopted a policy of widespread aerial bombardment against the Serbs, it would de facto have taken sides in a situation that is presented by the Serbs as a civil war, but seen in Muslim quarters as an inter-state conflict. Had the policy been to deter certain forms of behavior (for example, initiation of an offensive), NATO might have found itself called upon to attack, and risk retaliation from, all parties. Neither choice has been palatable to the Europeans and the Americans.

Second, NATO was not directly involved in the crucial opening rounds of the Yugoslav tragedy. The Europeans, anxious to demonstrate the foreign policy clout of the European Union, took the lead and bypassed NATO. The Bush administration, to its credit, warned of the fragility of the Yugoslav federation and the potential for ethnic volatility inherent in its dislocation. Yet the Europeans did not seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Germany contributed mightily to the subsequent wars by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia late in 1991, forcing other members of the Union to follow. …

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