A Lesson in Shame

As Warren Christopher says the U.S. is at the limit of its involvement in Bosnia, the failure to act in the Balkans is the West's most disgraceful mistake since World War II

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Wohlstetter's harsh conclusions are shared by other analysts in Europe and the U.S. who are calling for a new kind of leadership to deal with post-cold war crises. The main lesson is that with the danger of nuclear escalation greatly diminished, the likelihood of local wars is increased, and not only in the former Soviet bloc. Another is that West Europeans must recognize that their security cannot be guaranteed separately from the eastern half of the continent. Military alliances and other cooperative structures such as the E.C. must be made to reach at least as far as the former Soviet Union and perhaps all the way to the Urals. "It is in Central Europe," says Jacques Rupnik, an analyst at Paris' Institute of Political Studies, "that the security of Europe will be at stake."

A third lesson is that military power is like a loaded gun: never aim it at anybody unless you are prepared to shoot. European and American failures to follow through on threats of force merely emboldened the Serbs. "Bosnia was an American failure," contends Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Unless the U.S. is willing to take decisive action you are not going to get anything done. Milosevic's contempt for U.S. policy in general and for Clinton in particular is well known."

The mistakes that brought the world to the Balkan disaster can be traced back to the death in 1980 of Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and beyond. As the pressure for a looser confederation rose in Slovenia and Croatia, the West did virtually nothing to engineer a peaceful solution. In June 1991, James Baker, the Bush Administration's Secretary of State, told Milosevic that the U.S. supported "the unity and territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia. It was a statement made as much with the Soviet Union in mind as with the Balkans, but it gave Belgrade an excuse to send the Serb-dominated federal army into Slovenia and then Croatia to prevent their secession.

If the Western democracies recognized independent Slovenia and Croatia too late, they probably should never have recognized Bosnia at all, or at least not without credible guarantees of its security. "The recognition of Bosnia was not accompanied by any warning that if war proceeded, it would be followed by serious consequences," says Glynn. So the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia proper, declared their own independence from Bosnia and together with the Croats launched the land-grabbing civil war they are on the verge of winning.

At the start of that conflict the West made what must be seen as the most foolish error of the entire fiasco: it declared an arms embargo covering the entire region. Rather than blocking sales only to the Serbs, the U.N. Security Council slapped the ban on Croatia and hapless Bosnia as well. Since the Bosnian Serbs held a host of heavy weapons left behind by the Yugoslav army -- and had access to plenty more from Serbia -- that amounted to an embargo on the victim, not the aggressor. "The decisive mistake was in not understanding the character of nationalist movements in Yugoslavia," says Milovan Djilas, an erstwhile Tito comrade turned celebrated dissident. "Those movements didn't understand normal arguments, just the use of fear and force."

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