As the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina nears another explosion, President Clinton has on his desk Senate and House bills demanding that the United States defy a U.N. embargo against arming the embattled factions. The President says he will veto both. He should think again.
Though the path is strewn with problems, lifting the embargo, even unilaterally, would give the Bosnians a military chance. And if weapon supplies were coupled with American or NATO air power, the persistent tide of rebel Serb advances might be curbed. Proponents in Congress say that this would help equalize the battlefield in Bosnia, that it’s the right thing to do--"lift and strike.”
But Congress, despite its stated aims, has weighted the bills with heavy restrictions, encouraging suggestions that proposals to defy the embargo are highly colored with election year politics. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who pushed the Senate bill, is the leading contender for the GOP nomination to run against Clinton in 1996. He wants to look strong on Bosnia and tough on the Serbs.
EASY SELL: The bills weren’t hard to sell in Congress. On an emotional level, the embargo legislation had a simple message. Listen to the Bosnians. “If the world won’t protect us, give us the guns,” they say.
In both the House and the Senate the GOP majorities delivered a strong rebuke to Clinton’s policy of giving the lead on Bosnia to America’s NATO allies, which have been criticized for indecision as war and inhumanity have swept over the mountains and small valleys of Bosnia for the last four years. U.N. peacekeepers have tried to separate the combatants and ease the suffering, but in the bloody Balkans that effort has been like attempting to fence in an ocean wave.
The things the bills don’t do leave a question on the congressional intent:
--They allow the United States to defy the U.N. embargo but don’t authorize the sale or dispatch of the arms. Even with the embargo lifted, getting substantial arms into the landlocked country could prove hard.
--No embargo-breaking action could take place until the UNPROFOR troops were withdrawn, or until 12 weeks after the Bosnian government asked for their withdrawal, an unlikely prospect. At present, there is no indication that the United Nations intends to pull its troops out, though some contributing nations are edgy.
--All these actions would have to take place in defiance of the United Nations, a sharp turnaround in recent American policy.
--Air strikes by U.S. planes operating outside NATO sanctions would rupture the alliance. Is breaking ranks on Bosnia worth it?
“It (unilaterally lifting the embargo) would have very serious implications, not only for the situation in Bosnia where the war would escalate quite rapidly, but also for the entire credibility of U.S. foreign policy in other areas,” said the European Union’s Bosnia mediator, Carl Bildt.
A BRIEF WINDOW: To veto or not. Clinton has some breathing room. A veto need not be cast until mid-August, by which time Congress will be in summer recess. If he does veto before the recess, the President’s decision has a fair chance of being sustained by congressional vote.
Clinton’s real dilemma lies with the American people. They have shown little interest in committing U.S. forces to a war in a distant corner of Europe. The Balkans are not an immediate American problem, the Serbs are not the Third Reich, polls tell the politicians. But tell that to those being slaughtered by the brutal forces of Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic.
With the fighting surging again, Washington’s moral and military role is clear. Raise the embargo, unilaterally if necessary, and hit the Serb aggressors. It’s the right thing to do. Lift and strike.