A curious 'victory' in Bosnia


Washington -- IT IS hard to imagine a more amiable American hero than Scott F. O'Grady, miraculously rescued from the jungles of Bosnia. Handsome, charming, valiant. Wonderful family and a John Wayne "aw-shucks" smile. Faithful to God and to country.

One is grateful that this fine young Air Force captain -- the quintessence of what an American fighting man or woman should be -- is safe and sane. And yet . . .

Apart from the issue of his safety, I have the oddest feeling that this picture presents a very strange image of America to the world. For, if you look at what just happened in Bosnia, it is still another example of how the American military now spends inordinate amounts of its most precious public professional time rescuing other Americans -- and then effusively welcoming them back to safety, while the world goes to hell.

Moreover, if we leave the immediate headlines to make some sense of what is happening, we see that, in Somalia and now in Bosnia, we are expending abnormal amounts of energy extricating and evacuating troops from the "dangers" of enemy weapons. These are invariably weapons we have the capacity to destroy, but have chosen not to. This is because we are, as U.N. officials put it, supposed to be "in a war but not at war."

Our extraordinary American weaponry is being seen primarily by the world as something not to fight wars, or (most important) to dissuade and deter others from starting wars, but to rescue Americans. It ends with cheering comrades, naturally and rightfully glad to see their companion-at-arms safely back among their numbers.

But it also ends with the perception that the United States today has a curious will to impotence. It offers a tremendously skewed idea of power, military and moral. And it gives assurance to the goons and thugs of the world that their power is superior, and thus can be used painlessly.

I suppose it was all right -- surely it was inevitable -- that ABC's excellent "Nightline" show would immediately chime in with a show called "Anatomy of a Rescue," which profiled the emotional roller coaster. It showed admirals at the Pentagon thinking, "Rescue, rescue, rescue." It showed our courageous fighting men from the ships in the Adriatic going in there to find Captain O'Grady -- and finally the pilot was out.

And then we saw President Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake "celebrating" with cigars on the Truman Balcony of the White House in the wee hours of the morning, before turning in. The generation that gave us the smoke-free life had now given us the war-free military!

Now, think of some other events that were also taking place in these roller coaster days of "rescue." Even while Captain O'Grady was missing in Bosnia, U.N. representative Yasushi Akashi again errantly turned down military advice to take out the missiles that hit the American pilot. It was "business-worse-than-usual" in Bosnia, even after all the Serb hostage-taking and fuss of the last two weeks.

Apparently President Clinton, who under NATO rules of engagement could have himself ordered American planes to go in to take out the missiles after Captain O'Grady was hit, refused to give such an order to the planes already standing by on American carriers in the Adriatic.

Worst of all is the fact that these Russian-made missiles, which were put into operation by the Serbs only last fall, are open to destruction by American weapons. So is the Serb artillery, which is the principal weapon of this war. It could be taken out by men firing counter-artillery, employing radar, from the ground or by firing it from the air, or even in some cases from the sea.

So, yes, we can do just about anything. We demonstrated that in small but effective "police actions" such as the bombing of Libya, the invasion of Grenada and the intervention of Panama; and we surely showed it in the leadership of a U.N. operation in the Gulf War. We have the models for an effective and rational defense strategy.

Yet under this administration we are too busy for stuff like that. Our national dramas have returned, a la Iran and the hostages in Jimmy Carter's time, to rescuing Americans. This "virtual administration" engages not in warfare but in an endless parody of power.

We did not celebrate the end of the Cold War (didn't we win it?) because our leaders did not want to insult the Russians. When our troops came home from the Gulf War, they marched in a silent parade in Washington -- in order not to appear over-victorious, not in style. Now we are cheering the rescue of a young man who should never have been put in such an exposed position to start with.

Is it still possible in our national psyche to celebrate "Anatomy of a Victory"?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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