Stop Serbia Now

New Republic , 10 May 1993

At the beginning, there was confusion. A state that was not a state was cut loose from an empire
and convulsed itself in ancient hatreds. A civil war or an ethnic implosion? A religious feud or an
imbalance of power? The status of Bosnia was, after all, historically problematic. It was not a
“nation” as such; and the Europeans, with a long history of caution in such matters, advised
caution. Besides, were not all the parties — now, Muslims, Serbs — morally tainted?

So the United States, exhilarated by the end of the cold war and consumed with an election
campaign in which the arguments of retrenchment outweighed the passion for entanglement, let it
be. The Europeans revealed themselves to be Europeans, incapable of united action, guided by
separate historic and cultural temperaments, fearful of the larger truths that the Serbian war
revealed about Europe’s intolerance of tolerance and addicted to the process of peace, which soon
became the management of war. The United Nations, through its humanitarian efforts, indirectly
facilitated the incursions of the Serbs, and by placing Western troops on the ground, provided a
perfect excuse for the British and French to oppose military escalation. The U.N. thus assumed
the role of the expediter of invasion, escorting the evacuees, shepherding the wounded, ushering
in the victors. They do not wish to resist the Serbian conquest, they wish only to take the pain out
of it. They are the cleansers of the cleansing, struggling to believe in decency in the face of
unvarnished evil.

There may have been a point when the United States, confronted by what seemed to be an
intractable internecine war, was right to pretend to stay aloof. We say pretend, because the United
States has long been indirectly involved in the war. By upholding the arms embargo against
Bosnia, we engineered a one-sided massacre; by halfheartedly supporting the Vance-Owen plan,
we allowed the Serbs diplomatic space in which to pursue their military aims; by the policy of
food air drops to those about to be slaughtered, we gave notice that we would do nothing to end
the slaughter itself. Slobodan Milosevic, who follows the logic of force, rightly calculated that all
the cards were his.

What we face now, however, is a new drama: the possibility not merely of new Serbian progress
into Bosnian Muslim territory (and Macedonia and Kosovo), but the horrific possibility of
genocide in those areas that the Serbs already control. The threat is thus both moral and strategic.
Those who argue that this region is of no strategic importance are simply wrong. The
entanglement of Russia and Greece, the mobilization of Islamic states in defense of the Muslims,
the de-stabilization of Turkey, the possibility of mass migration on the edge of Europe, all are
threats to European stability as a whole. But the moral signal that is now being sent by the
American government (which, in the other side of its brain, is busy congratulating itself for its
ethical activism in Somalia) is even more worrying: that international borders are movable by
force of arms; that racial and religious terror will go unchecked.

As so often before, the fixation on multilateralism is restraining credible action. The U.N. has
shown itself to be toothless; the British and French are as pusillanimous now as they were in a far
greater but similar crisis in the 1930s. Russia’s Serbian sympathies preclude helping Bosnia.
(There is something really unpleasant about this sudden renewal of the great Russian people’s
tenderness toward the great Serbian people. Is this what the end of the cold war was supposed to
accomplish?) If the United States can only act in concert with other powers, it simply will not act
at all.

So we must act alone; but we must act. President Clinton should deliver an ultimatum to
Milosevic and his strutting surrogates: that, by a certain date, all incursions are to cease; that
genocidal actions must immediately cease (including what might be called “strategic rape”); that
negotiations should begin on constructing a defensible and credible Bosnian state out of the ruins
of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and that, if these actions are not taken, the arms embargo on the Bosnians
will be unilaterally lifted and unspecified military action against Serbian military targets from the
air and sea will begin. This declaration should be made after the April 25 referendum in Russia
and should be a unilateral declaration that can give Yeltsin complete deniability. (We owe Yeltsin
that much in this matter, but not more.) If the Western allies and the U.N. can agree to this, so be
it. But if they cannot, Clinton should summon the will to go ahead without them. There are times
when America, alone of nations, has an obligation to take a stand, and act where the self-styled
angels fear to tread.

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