Lifting Bosnia embargo a seductively bad idea


BERLIN -- The idea appeals to anyone with a sense of morality and fair play: Lift the arms embargo in Bosnia, and let the outgunned Bosnian Muslims defend themselves against the Serbs.

Too bad it wouldn't work.

It is a good idea whose time has passed, according to military and strategic analysts in Europe and the United States, virtually unanimous in their opinion regardless of political leanings.

Even if U.N. peacekeeping troops first withdrew, analysts say, lifting the embargo now would likely trigger a bloody series of disasters, with the Bosnian Serbs as the most likely beneficiaries.

And if the United States lifted the embargo on its own, in defiance of the United Nations and the NATO alliance, the disaster would be compounded by serious diplomatic consequences.

"It strikes me as a completely reckless option," said Patrick Glenn of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "I just don't see the logic."

Why, then, is the idea still alive, even popular in some quarters?

"It's one of those ideas that people just can't let go of because it sounds great," said a U.N. strategist. "It's great PR -- 'helping the victims' -- and it doesn't cost anything."

In this way, the embargo proposal is symptomatic of earlier Western attempts to control events in Bosnia, a series of failures marked by a recurring tendency to apply cheap, shallow solutions to complex, deep-rooted problems.

The most recent promoter of lifting the embargo is Bob Dole, who as leader of the new Senate Republican majority was received this week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, with treatment befitting a secretary of state. His words, however, made the analysts wince.

"It would set off a chain reaction with fast and very undesirable consequences," the U.N. analyst said.

The argument for lifting the embargo tends to rely on three assumptions: that it would allow for a "fair fight" against the Bosnian Serbs; that it would ease civilian suffering, mostly by hastening the end of the war; and that rejuvenated Bosnian government forces would never resort to the "ethnic cleansing" or territorial greediness of the misbehaving Serbs.

Each assumption is either wrong, misleading or naive, particularly the first and most important assumption, according to the analysts, including those from think tanks that often agree with Mr. Dole.

"I was a proponent of it early on," said Mr. Glenn of the Enterprise Institute.

So were many other people who get paid to ponder such things. Even at the headquarters of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has never officially backed the proposal, some behind-the-scenes planners felt early on that lifting the embargo might be not only ethical but smart.

One NATO planner recalled a meeting in late 1992, several months after the war began, as the Bosnian Serbs and Serbian elements of the Yugoslav national army were shelling or "ethnically cleansing" every non-Serbian city in their path.

A German representative made an impassioned plea for dropping the embargo, saying, "If the Nazis were making these attacks, could you still sit back and say, 'I'm sorry, but we can't let you defend yourselves?' "

His analogy may have been a little harsh on the Serbs, despite their apparent crimes, but many in the room agreed with the thrust of his argument.

But the world hesitated, and soon the opportunity was gone. Once the Bosnian Serbs put a stranglehold on Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and other key cities, their control of most supply routes made lifting the embargo dubious.

"It is usually forgotten that the only way the weapons could come in would be by air," said Jonathan Ayal, military analyst with the Royal United Service Institute in London. "What they [the Bosnians] need most is tanks in large numbers, armored personnel carriers to move their infantry around, and heavy artillery. And ideally they could use an air force as well, unless NATO was willing to provide it."

In fact, air supply routes might also be unworkable unless NATO aircraft became the Bosnian air force. The Bosnians "are not exactly well-positioned to receive weapons," Mr. Glenn said. "The Serbs have total escalation dominance on the ground."

The weapons themselves wouldn't be enough to help the Bosnians. They'd need training, too, and that would be even more difficult to provide. It would also cost valuable time, especially since the Bosnians are mostly used to fighting with Soviet-made weapons, not those made in the West.

The Bosnian Serbs, meanwhile, would be getting plenty of new guns and ammunition they would already know how to use.

"It is a long process to train people to use weapons, to reorganize an army and to prepare it to start an offensive," Mr. Ayal said. For the Bosnians, "It would take at least three or four months."

Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, British commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, has estimated it might take as long as two years.

"And they might not be given that time anyway," the U.N. analyst said, "because the Serbs are hardly going to sit and wait for them to train. You would have an immediate incentive for the Serbs to win the war more quickly."

"The closing of the border between the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia would be a thing of the past," a NATO analyst said. "And with the Ukrainians and the Russians coming into [the Bosnian weapons market], it would be a free-for-all, because it's great business."

The civilians, meanwhile, would likely suffer more as the fighting intensified. And with the 23,000 U.N. peacekeepers and relief personnel gone, people in the surrounded Muslim enclaves of Sarajevo, Gorazde and Srebrenica would suffer more.

Even Bihac, now under attack, might be worse off.

"It could lead to the fall or further strangulation of all these enclaves," the U.N. analyst said. "At least now, even in Bihac, something is trickling down in the way of supplies. There will be nothing after we leave."

Even if, against all odds, the Bosnian army somehow made the lifting of the arms embargo work to their advantage, who's to say they would behave much better than the Bosnian Serbs if they seized the upper hand.

"It is nonsense to suggest, as the Muslims are, that they are only fighting to implement the peace plan," Mr. Ayal said. "If they regained all the territory provided for them in the peace plan, they wouldn't stop there. There are no demons and angels in this war. There are losers and winners."

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