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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The clinching failure by the West was its belief that it could influence without becoming involved -- and then threaten force but not use it. Bill Clinton entered office after campaigning to get tough in the Balkans. In April he went so far as to promise to use air power against Serbian gun positions. But the threat of force wilted in May with the ill-fated European tour of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who could not -- some say would not -- persuade the European Community to follow the American lead. Last week Christopher essentially ruled out using force at all to stave off the fall of Sarajevo or otherwise come to the rescue of the Muslims, saying the U.S. had done all it could in Bosnia.

There are those who argue that some of the ethnic cleansing that has put hundreds of thousands of Bosnians to flight can be undone -- and can be prevented from happening again. Wohlstetter and others contend that Washington has been too quick to abandon its option of "lift and strike" -- lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims and strike at mainly Serbian heavy weapons with aircraft and limited ground forces. But it may be too late for that, with Sarajevo on the verge of defeat. In any case, the lift option is vehemently opposed by all of Europe except Germany.

There is still time, however, for action to prevent a larger Balkan war. "One option is containment in a southern direction," says Zalmay Khalilzad, director of strategic doctrine at the Rand Corp. "If the Serbs win in Bosnia, the prospect of the war spreading increases." He calls for more energetic involvement in Macedonia, where the U.S. has deployed a token force of 300 soldiers to join a Nordic battalion already in place. So small a unit is nothing more than a "trip wire," a warning to would-be aggressors that an attack would bring in much greater U.S. military power.

But even that concept has been undermined. U.N. forces deployed in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia became not peacekeepers or peacemakers or even trip wires, but unwilling accomplices to Serbian aggression. One of the main reasons France and Britain argued against Western air strikes was fear that their lightly armed U.N. contingents would suffer retaliation. "The blue- helmet forces were a terrible mistake," says Lothar Altmann, an analyst on Central European affairs at Munich's Sud-Ost Institute. "They were sent there as an alternative to taking military action, but once there, they became hostages whose presence made military action impossible." For that reason, he says, "the West must make it clear that the forces in Macedonia can both defend themselves and protect the security of Macedonia as a state. Otherwise it will turn into another mistake."

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