How Many More Deaths Will It Take?


Pittsburgh. -- The latest sickening picture from Bosnia seems proof to many observers that the U.N. mission there has failed, and to give support to Bob Dole's effort in the U.S. Congress to end the arms embargo on the Muslims and force the U.N. out of Bosnia. Understandably, "Let the Bosnians defend themselves" is a slogan with enormous emotional appeal.

Yet withdrawing the U.N. mission from Bosnia and arming the Muslims is the worst possible course to take. The result of such an action would be far greater war and far more suffering and death. Increased warfare might be justified in pursuit of an attainable and justifiable goal, but no such goal exists in Bosnia.

First, the U.N. mission has not, in fact, failed in its primary job, which has been to feed the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 1992, the U.N. has kept tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people alive. These people are still in no position to be able to feed themselves. If the U.N. pulls out now, a large number of civilian deaths will be the result.

The U.N. force has certainly failed in an assignment that it was never given, which is to impose a settlement to the war. The basic problem in Bosnia remains what it was when the war began in 1992: A huge majority of the Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats reject the Bosnian "state" that the international community recognized against their wishes. How the U.N. or NATO could impose a state on those who reject it has never been made clear by Senator Dole and others who call for military aid to the Muslims.

The argument that Bosnia is a multi-ethnic state is, sadly, wrong. The multi-ethnic Bosnia that existed within Yugoslavia has been destroyed in the war. The recognized government of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now composed almost exclusively of members of one Muslim nationalist party. It has no legitimacy with most Bosnian Serbs or Herzegovinian Croats.

What would be the goal of arming the Muslims? Obviously, to attack the Serbs. But the problem is that the results of such action must be harmful, even catastrophic. When the Muslims attack, the Serbs respond. The Serb actions against Srebrenica and Zepa are at least partly in response to the U.S.-sponsored Muslim attacks on Serb positions around Sarajevo. Thus far, when the Muslim military attacks, Muslim civilians suffer.

If the Muslims are better armed, they may be able to attack more successfully. Yet large Muslim victories would bring catastrophe the Balkans. Muslim victories in Bosnia can only be consolidated by the expulsion of the Serb population from any areas taken -- Serb civilian as well as military forces.

The logic of the wars in the former Yugoslavia requires "population transfers," the polite term for ethnic cleansing. That the Serbs have done by far the most of this terrible practice does not make it their monopoly. The Croats have expelled the Serbs and Muslims from Western Herzegovina and the Serbs from Slavonia.

While Serbs expelled from their centuries-old homes in Croatia and Bosnia may receive about the same sympathy as the Germans expelled from Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Bohemia after World War II, the results in this case would be catastrophic. Serbs expelled from Bosnia will have no place to go but Serbia, but Serbia already has more than half a million refugees from Bosnia and Croatia.

Major Muslim victories in Bosnia would force Serbia to enter the war there directly, openly and in large force. At that stage, there is virtually no scenario that does not lead to a wider war in the Balkans, and perhaps throughout Europe. It is at this point that comparisons with 1914 become frighteningly apt. Mr. Dole's effort to end the U.N. mission to Bosnia and to arm the Muslims finally threatens to bring catastrophe to the Balkans, and to Europe.

The problem is more than simply Senator Dole's faulty vision. Since the Yugoslav crisis began in 1991, policy has been driven by emotional desires to address the latest atrocity, with no thought to the consequences -- and the consequences have always been worse atrocities.

Thus the 10-day "war" in Slovenia in 1991 led to threats to recognize that secessionist republic, even though those threats encouraged Croatian secessionists. The outbreak of war in Croatia led to that republic's recognition, even though all serious observers predicted that the result would be the violent disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Attempts to prevent the war in Bosnia by recognizing it as a state over the objections of a huge proportion of its putative citizens meant that partition was accomplished militarily rather than through negotiations. The proclamation of "safe areas" that were never defensible or viable complicated negotiations over Bosnia's partition and tied the U.N.'s and NATO's credibility to a policy as likely as stopping time. In the end, that emotional 1993 decision set the state for the latest atrocities.

What, then, should be done? First, it is time to recognize that Bosnia has been partitioned because so many of its supposed citizens reject it. Political efforts should now be based on stabilizing the region, by ratifying the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was made inevitable by the partition of the former Yugoslavia.

This is indeed a tragic and terrible outcome. Yet what is even more tragic and terrible is that this outcome could have been obtained without three years of warfare had politicians like Bob Dole and Bill Clinton had the honesty -- one might say the moral integrity -- to accept the fact that their earlier policies, based on emotion rather than analysis of likely consequences, were wrong.

Sure, it seems moral to arm the Muslims. How many more deaths will it take in Bosnia and even more widely in the Balkans to convince us that emotional responses that increase the tragedy are not moral at all?

Robert M. Hayden teaches anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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