Why We Go Into Bosnia

President Clinton campaigned in 1992 promising to assert American leadership in the world's flailing efforts to stem the violence in Bosnia. For almost three years those words amounted to little more than empty gestures and broken promises.

But the tide has changed. Prompted by allies weary of fruitless peacekeeping and Congress pushing for some resolution, Clinton launched a vigorous initiative last August that has already resulted in a general ceasefire and has made peace a realistic prospect for the first time since war began five years ago.

American leadership made possible punishing NATO airstrikes that rocked Serb forces still reeling from Croatia's blitzkrieg, and our resolution brought President Milosevic to end support for his Bosnian clients in an effort to end U.N. sanctions against Serbia. The balance has shifted in Bosnia, and the rebel Serbs recognize that continued conflict would only worsen their position. The Serbs have responded by making their first serious overtures toward peace.

The war still rages in the details of an eventual settlement. Right now, the parties can agree on little more than general principles and remain sharply divided over sovereignty issues and key territorial claims. American negotiators, led by Asst. Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, are working overtime to prepare for a meaningful exchange when the parties meet next week in Ohio.

In Washington, prospects of peace have revived debate over Clinton's earlier promise to commit American ground forces as part of a NATO-led operation to enforce an eventual peace settlement. When the President first mouthed these words, they passed without discussion, for peace in Bosnia seemed a contradiction in terms.

Now the Administration finds itself under sharp criticism from Congressional opponents of both parties who are wary of sending 20,000 American troops to a faraway land of which they know little. The Administration's detractors come largely in two stands. "Neoisolationists" argue that the U.S. has no national interests in Bosnia worth risking American lives. Those we might call "hawks" suggest that a peace-keeping operation will inevitably end with an ignominious withdrawal as in our operations in Somalia.

Neoisolationist voices in Congress argue that forces should be deployed only when our security is directly at stake. While such threats may include an attack on Persian Gulf oil resources, they have little tolerance for humanitarian concerns or international law.

Even if we accept the amoral premise of this foreign policy, neoisolationists are myopic in their understanding of American security. The war in Bosnia will never reach America's shores, but American leadership can define the norms of international conduct that will regulate the future relations among states. During the Cold War, the Western powers achieved an unprecedented degree of international cooperation through the NATO alliance. We must now continue this cooperation in establishing the Alliance as a guarantor of European security.

In the absence of a sustained international commitment led by the United States, there an be no lasting security arrangement in the Balkans. Media "hawks" suggest we should strengthen Bosnian forces rather than commit our own troops to securing peace.

This is a false choice. In the absence of successful disarmament by all sides, the President has committed the U.S. to training and equipping Bosnian forces. The Administration recognizes that Bosnia's security will depend in the long run on its own strengths, and not international guarantees. However, it will take more than the will to peace to secure a settlement. In this climate of distrust, agreements will have great difficulty finding their way off paper, unless we can find a way to assure all sides that agreements will be upheld.

This is the place of the American-led NATO operation. International involvement can provide the security that allows combatants to move forward with the peace process. The world community has been involved in Bosnia since warfare began. It is now time for us to see that they are there to see it end.

Steven A. Engel's Column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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