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Involvement Promises To Be Long, Messy THE BALKANS


Too late for many former Yugoslavs, too early for millions in many nations, show time is just ahead for the major powers. They will have sorted out whether to arm Bosnian Muslims, expanding the bloodletting, whether to try neutralizing Serbian butchers with air power, whether and with what orders to send ground troops.

It is possible to write a script in which the democracies and even Russia, led by America, march decisively into Bosnia, stare down the murderers and take a bow. What a wonderful outcome! America's post-Cold War power and prestige would soar. The West Europeans would have shown that, goaded, they could, after all, display courage. Serbian killers would be cowed. The Russians would be integrated fully into the family of humanitarian nations.

And after a decent period of tutelage, the righteous would leave the fragments of the late Yugoslavia to arrange their futures. The problem with that plot is its improbability.

All who predicted severe American casualties and prolonged fighting in the Persian Gulf war owe a certain caution here. Better than predicting events in Bosnia is simply to record the variables. Truth, except for today's chaos, is elusive. For every argument exists a persuasive rebuttal. Perhaps most important at the outset is that Americans must understand this is more likely to be a long, messy business.

The first question for Americans then is: Why intervene? Shouldn't Europeans take first responsibility? Probably yes, by a narrow standard of American interests. But a larger truth is that ,, the Europeans won't lead, even as they try to dictate the terms of Bill Clinton's leadership.

Hard-eyed strategists will say that films of starving and mutilated Bosnian babies are no basis for strategic commitment. To some Americans they are indeed enough. By that standard, intervention would range far beyond Somalia and the Balkans to Cambodia, Sudan, Liberia and a handful of other candidates. But most strategists would also say that the films from Bosnia represent something more fundamental.

Serbian atrocities evoke the Holocaust of World War II. It matters not whether Muslim behavior, had Muslims the power, would be more humane. This is the region that ignited World War I, where the language of 1914 applies almost eerily today.

Leap to 1993, and history argues that if the Serbs are not silenced the conflict will spread. Tentacles of ethnic loyalty reach into the northern Balkans, the former Soviet republics and even into Russia itself. Greece,succoring ethnic cousins in Macedonia, could face off against Muslim Turkey. Such thoughts help explain the willingness of the Russians, and of Greece and Turkey, to enlist in peacekeeping which appears certain to become peacemaking.

Much remains to be worked out about the makeup and command of the outside forces. U.N. sponsorship is a given. But would they be under U.N. command, as the U.N. wants, or the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as NATO insists? The Russians, oddly, say they'd have no problem committing troops to NATO under an American commander. All with a sense of irony may appreciate one of NATO's interests. Greece and Turkey of course are both members, and all members are pledged to fight immediately for any member under armed attack. No one is eager to see that premise tested.

Americans struggling for judgment must recognize at least that their interests are deeper than the emotions aroused by television. Whether interests are deep enough in the end to justify armed intervention may become clear from events, but perhaps not. History does not light the road not taken.

There should be no confusion anyway about comparisons with Somalia and Iraq. Somalia went about as expected with American intervention, though casualties easily could have been higher. The enemies there were isolated armed gangs, and the outcome of any confrontation was never in doubt.

Few predicted publicly the swift victory and low casualties of Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein remains in power, but the war fulfilled the primary objectives: freedom for Kuwait and destruction of Mr. Hussein's nuclear weapons potential.

In the late Yugoslavia, the objectives can be stated only in terms that imply months and perhaps years of occupation.

If the risks are too great to permit inaction, then what must be done? A condition of direct intervention, the interveners say, is that the Serbs agree to a cease-fire and a peace plan. But the record argues that whether the Serbs have agreed matters little. They accept, repudiate or violate terms according to their needs of the moment.

No one thinks aloud of piling on as in Desert Storm. Instead the strategy most often heard requires bombing artillery positions if Serbs misbehave. The strategists presumably have taken into account the mountainous terrain. And the tenacity of Yugoslavs against the Germans 50 years ago. And the limited effect of air power in Vietnam.

The ethnic enclaves drawn in Bosnia by the principal peacemakers, Cyrus Vance for the U.N. and Lord Owen for the European Community, appear to the uninitiated as a mad array of crooked lines. By even Mr. Vance's and Lord Owen's standards, they are an imperfect assignment of territory born of desperation. Inevitably ethnic assignments slop across the lines. Probably more important, they permit the Serbs to hold territory gained by so-called "ethnic cleansing" -- less politely, attempted genocide.

If peacemaking gets that far, the enclaves will be hard at best for U.N.-NATO troops to guarantee, impossible without good will on all sides. The results will be determined first by the resolve of the Serbs and second by the mandate of the peacekeeping force.

As for getting out, it is almost equally hard to imagine the NATO-U.N. force either engaging the Serbs in guerrilla war or tucking tail if the going becomes bloody. Somewhere in the background the word Vietnam again echoes hauntingly.

These decisions about the use of force are as complex as any ever to confront a modern president. Somalia, despite the local danger, was obviously feasible. National interests in Desert Storm were undeniable, as they were in the European wars. Vietnam and Korea were driven by established doctrine, whatever its merits. Mr. Clinton, the domestic president, must lead into the unknown a confused public reluctant to accept either American casualties or fresh film of innocents killed this time by Americans.

Yet he must know that how he manages the crisis will have consequences far beyond the immediate interests of everyone involved. What has evolved here is the nature of the post-Cold War period in its most virulent form. Its outcome could give form to what so far has been a phantom, the New World Order.

Henry Trewhitt, a former Sun correspondent, teaches at University of New Mexico.

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