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A U.N. War Against Bosnia's Serbs


Paris. -- London and Paris have announced the only choice possible in the Bosnian crisis, to reinforce, since the alternative of withdrawal concedes victory to aggression and would be -- as Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke has said -- the West's worst defeat since the 1930s. Withdrawal is the more logical course and probably an easier one to carry out, but would declare the entire international intervention since 1991 a failure.

Can reinforcement succeed? France has asked for a strengthened U.N. mandate as well, but the mandate already given to the U.N. Protective Force (with Russian accord) tells it to defend humanitarian convoys and safe zones, remove heavy weapons from around those zones, and enforce these measures against any opposition.

There has been no enforcement because the vulnerability of the (supposed) peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies made it unfeasible. To attempt enforcement invited precisely the countermeasures the Serbs now have taken in retaliation for last weekend's NATO bombings. (That the bombings were ordered without anticipating this Serbian reprisal is hard to comprehend, even while acknowledging the rashness of long-distance second-guessing of the U.N. Command.)

In the future the activities of the relief agencies must be limited to secure regions and U.N. forces redeployed. The notion of impartiality must be discarded in recognition that the Bosnian Serbs are the obstacle to what the U.N. today demands, which is recognition of Bosnia's national existence within the frontiers, however unsatisfactory, delimited by the major powers' contact group.

It means, in practice, war by UNPROFOR against the Bosnian Serbs. However, this would be a limited war against a small and vulnerable, if determined, enemy, for a limited aim -- their withdrawal to the contact groups' borders, which have already been accepted (grudgingly) by the Bosnian government.

After that a struggle certainly would go on, covertly if not overtly, as each side tried to recover lost ground. But the European powers (who dominate UNPROFOR, and whose troops are supposed to execute U.N. resolutions mostly drafted by the European governments) will have fulfilled their mandate. However belatedly, the point will have been made that aggressive war in today's Europe will be punished.

The point is an unsatisfactory one, since Belgrade's Slobodan Milosevic, who started this war, will have a large part of the Greater Serbia he set out in 1991 to create, at the expense of Croatians and the non-Serbian Bosnians, and he will profit from the defeat, if not the removal, of his principal political rival inside the new Yugoslav-Macedonian federation, the Bosnian Serbs' president (psychiatrist and failed poet), Radovan Karadjic.

He will also have the satisfaction of having created a radicalized and significantly Islamicized Bosnian state -- just as he had from the beginning accused the government of Alija Izetbegovic of already being. Deprived of outside support, treated by the U.N. as on the same moral and political level as the Serbs attempting to destroy liberal and non-ethnic government in their newly independent nation, the Bosnians have taken aid where they could find it, which has meant from the Islamic countries and in particular from Islamic fundamentalist forces.

However the "better" choice of reinforcement and execution of their U.N. mandate may not in the end be the one UNPROFOR carries out. It would prove difficult and costly, and 155 peacekeepers have already died in the former Yugoslavia. Some 350 more, as hostages, now are in real risk of being murdered. London and Paris may yet choose withdrawal. The reinforcement ordered Monday by London -- heavy artillery and engineering troops, with an airborne force on standby -- is what would be needed for a fighting withdrawal.

The United States supports reinforcement and staying on because a withdrawal would mean that Washington would be called on to fulfill its promise to supply troops to cover the withdrawal, and a primordial concern of the American government these days is to avoid having any of its professional soldiers actually engage in combat in the ex-Yugoslavia.

Thus the American position is the inglorious one of urging risks on others while keeping its own distance from the unpleasantness consequent upon its advice being taken.

France and Britain, are chiefly responsible for the U.N.'s having put French and British forces, plus those of the other countries that have contributed troops -- principally Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Canada -- into jeopardy by giving them incoherent, incompatible and politically irresponsible instructions. The European powers (Germany included) have followed a policy of risk-avoidance and appeasement which has merely prolonged the war for the Yugoslavs and facilitated ethnic cleansing there.

This has been a humiliation of Europe which obviously invites other aggressions elsewhere. All this is understood today in London and Paris, and the two governments say that things are going to change. This, though, remains to be seen.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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