Washington. -- United Nations trucks loaded with food for besieged Bosnian towns had been blocked for days when a spokesman for the Clinton administration announced the United States was seriously considering an airdrop of food to starving Bosnian civilians.
The response to this announcement tells us a good deal about why it is so difficult to make collective security work -- in Bosnia and in general.
"We are not enthusiastic about the idea. It's ineffective," said a spokesman for U.N. relief forces in Bosnia. "People may be hit by airdrops."
"The Serbs are paranoid about airdrops," said another.
"It might start a war," an officer with peacekeeping forces complained.
"The Serbs might fire at the Americans. The Americans might fire back. War might be the result. And that might endanger the peacekeepers," other U.N. officials suggested.
"It would require authorization from the United Nations," said Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in spite of the fact that the Security Council had months earlier passed a resolution authorizing member states to use "all necessary means" to deliver food and medicine to Bosnian civilians in besieged towns.
Such resistance to non-violent, purely humanitarian assistance is typical of the resistance to action that has characterized the world's response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
The Serbs, of course, do not welcome any relief for Bosnian Muslims, whom Serbs have deprived of food and medicine since last fall in the expectation that eventually starvation and illness would force the Muslims to leave their homes and towns, thus completing the "ethnic cleansing" that Serbian forces have imposed on much of the country. Their reaction was expected.
But it was not expected that U.N. commanders would oppose the airdrops of food and medicine because such action would tilt the war to the Bosnian side -- as if there were some sort of international duty to stand back in a neutral pose, while Serbian lTC forces starve Muslim civilians.
In fact, the handling of conflict in Bosnia is a case study in failures of conflict resolution and collective security. Neither peacemaking nor peacekeeping has proved useful in the long, bloody conflict that got under way after Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina held referendums and declared their independence from the federation that was Yugoslavia.
The most basic failure of the international community has been the reluctance to distinguish between the aggressor and the victim. When fighting broke out soon after the declaration of Croatian and Bosnian independence, the United States and most European governments interpreted the conflict not as aggression -- which it was -- but as a manifestation of age-old ethnic conflict, as if these were mutually exclusive.
A U.N. peacekeeper is expected to be rigorously neutral, and in Bosnia that has meant being neutral between the "ethnic cleansers" and the "cleansed" -- between the refugees forced to flee their homes, and those who forced them to flee.
A U.N. peacekeeper is expected to use force only when his own life is directly threatened. In Sarajevo this meant standing by while the vice prime minister of Bosnia was shot dead by Serbs while under the "protection" of French peacekeepers. It has meant waiting ever so patiently while, for weeks on end, Serbian troops prevent the passage of U.N. trucks bearing food for starving residents of besieged cities.
But the United Nations is responsible for its rules.
In Bosnia, U.N. peacekeepers have become too enamored of the restrictions placed on them by the etiquette of peacekeeping. Why else have they so staunchly opposed more effective action to feed the hungry and liberate the miserable inhabitants of the camps? Why have they not demanded enforcement of Security Council resolutions calling for access to concentration camps, passage for humanitarian assistance and an end to aerial bombing?
One of the principal criticisms made against U.N. peacekeeping is that it "freezes" conflict -- as the conflict in Cyprus was "frozen" in 1974 and on the India-Pakistan border in 1948.
But U.N. peacekeepers have not frozen the conflict in Bosnia. As a French officer wrote pseudonymously in Le Figaro, "The deaths continue to mount each day, 100,000? 150,000? Where will they end?"
And for the 4,800 French troops assigned to this miserable war, he continued, 12 have died, 90 have been wounded -- victims of a badly defined mission, of imprecise orders, a soft policy and insufficient means.
"All these unbearable events are a defeat," wrote the French general, "not for the militia men, even if they often feel it to be, but for the policy which has brought them there."
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.