Bosnia's Suffering and the 'Strange Moral Compass'


Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher commented recentlythat the West European effort to bring about a settlement of the Bosnian war revealed a "strange moral compass." Instead, America's superior morality has opted for greater war.

For at least the fourth time since the Bosnian tragedy began in 1992, the U.S. government has encouraged the Muslims to reject a peace settlement that they had been about to sign, always on the grounds that it was a bad deal. In each case the result has been disaster for the Muslims, as the Serbs and Croats have then taken more of the republic.

Since March 14, 1991, when the presidents of Serbia and Croatia agreed to divide Bosnia between them, there was no chance for survival of the ethnically mixed Bosnia that existed within the former Yugoslav federation. Once it was clear that there would be an independent Serbia and an independent Croatia, most of the Serbs and Croats of Bosnia, jointly 51 percent of the population, lost interest in a Bosnian state, preferring to join their "mother republics." The Bosnia and Herzegovina that was recognized internationally was thus dead at birth, rejected by large numbers of its citizens.

Bosnia could only be partitioned at the expense of the Muslims, so U.S. opposition to the division of the republic may have seemed a moral decision. Yet the actual creation of a Bosnian state would have required its forced imposition on the large percentage of its supposed citizens, and that was never likely.

In these circumstances, America's moral compass pointed to disaster. By denying that partition of Bosnia could take place when in fact it was inevitable, the international community ensured that it would be accomplished in the worst possible way. The map of Bosnia was redrawn in blood on the ground, rather than around a table.

The terrible consequences of America's superior morality became apparent just before the war began, in February and March 1992. The European Community had brokered a deal by which the Muslims would have gotten 42 percent of Bosnia, the Serbs 42 percent, and the Croats the rest. Had that deal been implemented, Bosnia would have been partitioned in the least bloody way.

However, Warren Zimmerman, then U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, advised the Muslims to reject the deal, even though, as he later said, "It wasn't bad at all." Following his advice, the Muslims withdrew their acceptance of the plan. The result was exactly what the Serbs had both threatened and predicted: civil war, with the largest losers being the Muslims.

Ambassador Zimmerman admitted in August that the United States erred in urging the Muslims to reject the EC plan. Yet the United States has not learned from its mistakes.

In late January of last year, the new Clinton administration showed that it was as capable of increasing the Bosnian tragedy as the Bush administration had been. At that time, all parties in Bosnia were poised to accept the first version of the Vance-Owen plan. While that plan was seriously flawed, more than 80 percent of its territorial divisions were acceptable to all three sides, with the Muslims getting about 34 percent of Bosnia (compared to 42 percent in the deal they had turned down).

Had this first Vance-Owen plan been implemented, the war between the Croats and the Muslims would have been over, and the situation in eastern Bosnia could have been resolved more favorably to the Muslims. Instead, the United States urged the Muslims to reject it, which they did. The Croats and Serbs used the resulting delay to take militarily what was denied them on the map. Again the biggest losers were the Muslims.

In August, the Muslims were ready to sign the Owen-Stoltenberg plan in Geneva. The United States had originally supported this plan, and it was accepted by the Croats and Serbs. The Muslim share of the land would have been 33 percent.

One would have thought that U.S. pressure would have been aimed at the party that rejected the plan, the Muslims; but instead, the Americans threatened air strikes against the two parties who accepted it. With this encouragement, the Muslims rejected the plan, leading to continuation of the war through the winter, with enormous hardships to the civilian population.

The Clinton administration continued its obstruction of Bosnian peace talks last month. Since November, the Muslim forces have had some success in taking Croatian-inhabited areas in central Bosnia and ethnically cleansing them, and the State Department apparently thinks that this Muslim military success will continue.

Yet the Muslim forces are not so strong. They cannot resist coordinated Serbian-Croatian offensives, and precisely such coordinated attacks are imminent. Bosnia's Serbs and Croats, aided openly now by their "mother republics," are preparing for new offensives against the Muslims. American determination to prevent a diplomatic settlement has left renewed war their only option.

In the next month, Serbian-Croatian offensives against their common enemy will destroy the last chances that the Muslims had of retaining even the semblance of a viable territory in Bosnia. Their casualties will be worse than anything seen thus far. This is the bleak destination of the course indicated by Warren Christopher's moral compass.

At this stage, U.S. policy toward Bosnia has been so destructive that it must either have been calculated to destroy the Muslims, or else stunningly inept.

Many call for American leadership in intervening in Bosnia. America has just intervened diplomatically for the fourth time to upset peace settlements just as they were to be signed. Each time, the Bosnian Muslims have lost the most as a result of the delay in the settlement. Perhaps America should now not seek to lead, but rather should stop hindering the efforts that others have made to mitigate the disastrous effects of American "leadership."

Robert Hayden, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, is a specialist on Yugoslavia.

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