UNTIL Bosnia began retaking land last week, those desiring a minimum degree of justice in this catastrophe were going through hard times.
The allied powers had begun making friends with Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, the man most responsible for war in the former Yugoslavia. With winter on the way, Bosnian Serbs surrounded Sarajevo. The partition plan that the allies counted on (and used to block help for Bosnia) was dead. The arms embargo was in force. No end was in sight for the ``peacekeeping'' policy.
And so outraged had the government in Sarajevo become with the UN that it had formally requested that the UN commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, be not only removed, but court-martialed.
Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times has shown why, reporting that Sir Michael was fabricating reports to UN headquarters to dampen enthusiasm for NATO airstrikes on Serb positions.
All these problems remain, but last week the Bosnians took a modest hand in their own destiny for the first time in 31 months. They took back 80 square miles of land and opened three fronts. This gives the Western allies a new chance to help them assert their legitimate right to a multiethnic state - as the West should have done three years ago. Though the Bosnian victory was won by cunning and surprise, and may yet be reversed when the Serbs retaliate with heavy weapons, it does several important things:
First, it breaks the 31-month status quo by showing that the government in Sarajevo and the Bosnian spirit are not dead. Western policymakers, who misjudged the crisis at the outset, have assumed since the early fall of 1992 that the war was over.
This was a convenient analysis, justifying their offering only minimal help. The UN forces, it was felt, could feed people long enough for the territory to be carved up, and then they could leave. But Bosnia is not dead; nor will it die. It must be given a chance to recover and thrive. The Bosnian victories raise the question: How well could this UN member state do with real support?
Second, the Bosnian victory forces to the surface a basic difference between the Anglo-French view and the US view. The former is, charitably, one of neutrality: All sides are equally guilty. The stated US view, closer to our own, is that there has been a clear-cut oppressor (the Serbs) and a clear-cut victim (the Bosnians) - and that justice must be served.
This view is held by former US secretaries of state, national security advisors, and secretaries of defense. Truth be told, however, neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration has ever lived up to this rhetoric.
Still, a basic difference played out Tuesday when Sir Michael said Bosnian forces retaking land might come under NATO attack. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to his credit, said he did not think so.
Third, the Bosnian victories do give the White House leverage to convince its allies, mainly Britain and France, that justice must be served. London newspapers are already calling for a new policy. But first the White House must convince itself it can do the hard work required. At a minimum, it should enforce the promises already made, see that UN resolutions are kept, and be prepared to act.
The safe areas and exclusion zones in Bosnia must be strictly enforced. They presently are not. Aid must get through without being held up by Serbs. It presently does not. The Bosnians deserve to be able to defend their borders - as the world community helped Kuwait do in 1990. The arms embargo against Bosnia makes this impossible. The US State Department and the UN clearly point out war criminals. They should stand trial.
We do not make these points lightly. Things could still go wrong for Bosnia. US relations not only with Britain and France but with Russia as well may be strained by this course of action. Moreover, we realize that what we are calling for could lead to direct use of American military force.
UT the push in Congress for a unilateral lifting of the arms embargo, if it isn't lifted in the UN Security Council, suggests that the representatives of the American people do understand what is at stake here. It is time to take the side of right, renounce aggression, and turn Bosnia around. A Senate staff report shows that US taxpayers will give $1 billion in 1994-95 to support a status quo policy that aids oppression and offers no real answers.
A significant chunk of southern Europe is gripped by a war that followed a genocidal land grab in 1992. To allow a gross breakdown of civil order in Europe to continue sets very bad precedents. To deal with it decisively sets very good precedents, and is in everyone's long-term interest.