How Serious Were We About Defending Rights?


Boston -- American opinion is moving hesitantly toward military intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

Elite opinion: The matter is not on the popular or political agendas -- but neither was Kuwait two years ago this spring. The parallel between the Persian Gulf and Bosnia-Herzegovina may yet catch the attention of President Bush, in these pre-election days.

The official American position remains that military intervention is not under consideration.

The press calls for more severe economic and political reprisals against Serbia for its aggressions, but some in the press and the policy community now are arguing that the threat, and if necessary the use, of military force has become a necessity not only to check the killing in Bosnia-Herzegovina but to validate the principle the United States and the international community attempted to establish during the Iraq crisis and its aftermath.

What Serbia, and to a lesser extent Croatia, now are doing in Bosnia-Herzegovina confounds that principle, that military aggression and the murderous repression of ethnic minorities inside a state are matters of international concern and will be challenged by the international community.

Serbia in particular, and Croatia as well, are by military aggression extending the territory they directly or indirectly control, subsequently "cleansing" these conquered regions of their non-Serb or non-Croatian populations through forced expulsions, terrorism or simple murder.

If this course is not reversed, they will succeed where Hitler ultimately failed, triumphantly carrying off wars of racial and territorial aggression in the face of world disapproval.

A State Department official, who chose to be unidentified, said Tuesday that this "dirty war . . . in which people are murdered, tortured, not because of what they do but because they belong to one ethnic group or another . . . is [mostly] being perpetrated against the Muslims and the perpetrators tend to be more often than not Serbs." Others are involved, but "it's clear that the Serbs are most involved and the Muslims are most victimized."

The Islamic dimension is important internationally. The Islamic states are saying that world indignation over aggression seems to function only when a Muslim state is the aggressor.

At the United Nations they are pressing for action to defend the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina but are opposed by China, a member of the Security Council, and by other Third World dictatorships which fear that the principle of international intervention might one day be turned against them.

They are, of course, correct to fear the validation of a non-aggression principle. But the Western countries have every reason to want it confirmed -- and if it is to be confirmed, there must be an effective intervention against Serbia, the state whose ambitions have provoked the Yugoslav catastrophe.

The prospect of international intervention would benefit on the one hand from the fact that it need not -- indeed, should not -- take the form of military action on the ground. Ground intervention in an ethnic and essentially civil struggle would almost certainly worsen it. Recognition of this fact is why the international community has been so reluctant to consider an intervention.

However, an air intervention from West European bases and the U.S. and French carrier forces in the Mediterranean could deprive the Serbian forces of the decisive advantage they have thus far enjoyed, the heavy artillery and armored forces of the ex-Yugoslav Federal Army.

That army's bombardment even now is doing to Sarajevo what it earlier did to Vukovar and Dubrovnik. That bombardment could be silenced in hours, the ex-Federal air force grounded and Serbia's civilian as well as military airfields cratered and put out of use.

The effect of that on Serbian popular opinion -- already divided on this war -- would be profound. The intervention would need to be accompanied by greatly increased Western radio broadcasting to the Serbian population, which currently is in the grip of a repressive and fantastical propaganda regime asserting that the Serbian people are besieged by an alliance of renascent Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, imperialist America, a reactionary Vatican -- and fundamentalist Islam.

The United Nations is blocked from acting. The European Community is also blocked because Greece supports Serbia (out of an absurd fear that an independent ex-Yugoslav Macedonia -- with a population of 1.3 million people -- would threaten Greece, which has a population of 9.7 million and the largest armed forces in Europe, proportionate to population, and which enjoys a formal security guarantee from 15 NATO nations).

It may thus be necessary that action be taken by an informal coalition of democracies.

So long as they act in accordance with the expressed majority opinion of the Security Council, the European Community and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the formalities are unimportant. The essential point is that the intervention express a consensus view of the democratic community.

A limited air intervention, accompanied by further measures of economic and political reprisal against Serbia, and against Croatia if its intervention in Bosnia continues, would not itself halt aggression but would make the combat a more equal one on the ground, and would, as well, greatly change the political context of the struggle.

As the international community has recognized the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and of the other new ex-Yugoslav republics, it is justified in arming and otherwise strengthening those who resist aggression. It scarcely can do less if the words spoken about Kuwait meant anything.

It must do at least this much for the sake of non-aggression in the future, and ethnic coexistence, elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union.

This is a truth people in both the United States and Western Europe are coming to recognize. If Mr. Bush will not act, what about John Major, responsible for last year's intervention to save the Kurds, or Francois Mitterrand?

But if there is going to be action, it will have to come soon.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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