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NATO in Bosnia

BEHIND the drama in Brussels over NATO airstrikes at Serb forces besieging Sarajevo is an important test of the United States role in foreign affairs - and President Clinton's strength as a world leader. The White House has decided that since it will not act to save Bosnia, at least it can act to save the key symbol of tolerance and civility in a war that represents a resurgence of barbarism in the world. Sarajevo could become the Berlin Airlift of the 1990s.

The sentiment here is noble, and the plan, if carried out with sufficient resolve, could represent the first real response of the West on the side of justice in this terrible war of Serb aggression. But no one in the West should believe that airstrikes on Serb positions outside Sarajevo represent a triumph. The caveat in the NATO airstrike strategy, if it even is carried out, is that it is tied to an ugly effort in Geneva to get Bosnian President Izetbegovic to surrender by signing a partition plan. Mr. Izetbegovic is being asked by Western negotiators to accept a deal: The exchange of his country and the genocide against his people - for the city of Sarajevo.

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The deal would contravene law and justice.

The US-led NATO initiative is the second time the White House has gone to the allies to do something about Bosnia. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was rebuffed so easily by the allies in May that many wondered if the administration lacked resolve, or seriousness. A second rebuff would be a diplomatic defeat.

At this point, then, it appears the US will take some military action in Bosnia. But a few airstrikes will mean little. Serb President Slobodan Milosevic will not only laugh at such strikes, he may even encourage them so long as they are few.

If the US is serious about lifting the siege of Sarajevo, it must be committed to a long-term effort. The US would have to establish a United Nations trusteeship for the city and its environs. It would have to negotiate such status with Europe, and with Milosevic, the chief perpetrator of the crisis. It would have to put together a volunteer force to enforce action on the ground. And it would have to take some casualties. Mr. Milosevic would require no less.

Actually, getting past the French and the British is the toughest immediate problem. They have managed to make so many complex requirements for NATO action that Sarajevo may freeze in winter before anything is done to protect innocent lives.

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