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Welcome to the Prewar Years


Paris -- Eugen Weber, in "The Hollow Years," his history of France in the 1930s, remarks that in 1930 the postwar years were ending, but some already "speculated that the prewar years were now beginning."

The same may be said in 1995. The great-power order imposed on Europe after the second World War did not end with the fall of communism in 1989, but with the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, to the forces of nationalism, ethnic hatred, and political obscurantism. The prewar war years have begun.

Since communism's collapse in 1989, the United States has moved slowly toward a withdrawal of its protection from Europe. The West European powers have simultaneously proved unable or unwilling to assume responsibility for the continent's fundamental security, replacing America's security influence.

In Washington eyes, Europe is now the Europeans' affair -- as indeed it should be. However, the governments of what in an earlier day were called the European great powers have chosen not to accept this responsibility.

The ambition that Europe would collectively do so, by means of a European Union foreign and security policy, has provided the individual European governments with their excuse for failing to assume, or contemplate, continental responsibilities in the present crisis.

If the U.S. does not act, they expect "the U.N." to do so. Europe's governments seem generally to look upon themselves as agents of consensus. That Britain and France are two of the five permanent Security Council members seems to impose little responsibility other than to identify the least onerous and least ambitious level of consensus.

The United States has since the war valued European unification because Americans recognized that this was something new in 20th-century history. The new European institutions and systems interaction and cooperation were founded upon a consensus of belief with America on political values.

The success of "Europe" provided the Europeans with formidable moral as well as political authority. People on both sides of the Atlantic believed, with reason, that unified Europe could have a decisive influence on the future of Eastern Europe and Russia.

That authority has been wasted in Yugoslavia, and in the lies told about Yugoslavia. Other governments obviously have been implicated, including the American. The U.N. Security Council, however, was dominated on this issue by its European permanent members, and London and Paris, with Bonn, are mainly accountable for what has or has not been done by the U.N. in Yugoslavia.

The American political class has from the start demonstrated a more realistic view of what this war implies than the French, British, or Germans. Washington was initially inhibited in saying so by the belief that Yugoslavia was Europe's affair. It was held that the Europeans would (as they will) suffer the principal consequences of Yugoslavia's descent into chaos and evil.

Washington nonetheless maintained that the Bosnians had a right to arms to defend themselves. The American government also saw that the new Bosnian state represented the principle of non-ethnic, non-discriminatory, parliamentary government -- the fundamental principle of Western Europe's Union.

The Europeans' incomprehensible indifference to this fact, and their insistence that victims and aggressors be treated impartially, without moral differentiation, are responsible for the catastrophe which now has arrived. The U.N. embargo effectively disarmed the geographically encircled Bosnians, and was powerless to stop the arming of the Bosnian Serbs, whose supply lines and control from Serbia itself were never broken.

Conclusions must now be drawn from all this. My own are the following:

The United States should unilaterally lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.

It should arm the Bosnian army, or facilitate its arming, if a reasonably accountable Bosnian government survives this crisis and is indeed prepared to continue the struggle.

XTC The U.S., in my view, should also provide or facilitate for the Bosnians sufficient air support as to deter or destroy Serbian air intervention against them. The purpose of this policy would be to provide the Bosnians with an equal "killing field" (the objective hotly opposed by Britain's foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, at the start of this war.)

The purpose is not to win the Bosnians' war for them. (It was in Vietnam that the United States set out to win someone else's war.) They will have to win their own war -- and it must be said that they are more likely than not to lose.

The U.N. and the European governments have said they will withdraw U.N. troops if the U.S. changes policy. As the Europeans intend to withdraw anyway, before winter, that scarcely is an objection. London and Paris would secretly welcome this change in U.S. policy. It would lift from them the onus for their ignominious abandonment of Yugoslavia's victims.

The Clinton government has promised to contribute as many as 25,000 troops to an extraction of the U.N. force. Should it do so? Of course it should; this now is a matter of national honor and pledged allied solidarity.

If, however, Congress should refuse, and choose the course of dishonor -- as it may -- this will simply add an American betrayal of its allies to the balance-sheet of those allies' previous and continuing betrayals of those Yugoslav people who wish to live by the standards of liberal Europe.

I would myself, in any case, think that 20,000-plus well-equipped professional solders, reinforced by the two largest and best professional armies and navies in Western Europe, the British and French, are better able to look after themselves as they flee the Serbs than the Bosnian refugees trying to escape the collapse of those enclaves where, until now, the Europeans had assured them they were "secure." Srebrenica's Bosnian defenders were disarmed by the U.N. 30 months ago, in exchange for the assurance that the enclave would be protected.

I would also think Srebrenica's assigned protectors, the Dutch Marines who put up no resistance to the Srebrenica attack (since, they are reported to have said, there were 1,500 Serb soldiers and only 450 Dutch professionals), and who at this writing are the Serbs' prisoners, are better off than the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees now massing at the Dutch-held airport and camp near Tuzla.

Serbia has won. Europe has lost. Europe's last gesture was President Jacques Chirac's offer of French forces to retake Srebrenica, a Quixotic gesture which only embarrassed the Foreign Office in London and, no doubt, Mr. Chirac's own prime minister, Alain Juppe, an architect of the policy France has followed until now. The reader is bid welcome to the prewar years.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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