BOSNIA : Does the Administration Have a Clear Purpose?

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times

Sending U.S. troops into the middle of a civil war in Bosnia as part of a peacekeeping force--with ambiguity regarding objectives, rules of engagement and the relationship of NATO to non-NATO forces such as Russia's--is to stockpile dilemmas that the passage of time is sure to magnify.

To avoid such an outcome, the Clinton Administration, Congress and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must urgently clarify goals and strategies. Agreements must be incorporated into peace negotiations slated to begin in Washington on Oct. 31. Far better to pay the price of delay than to have a NATO peacekeeping effort break down under the weight of its internal contradictions or of U.S. domestic pressures.

Recent U.S. efforts to bring peace to Bosnia have been constructive. Nonetheless, before Washington goes any farther it must examine two "commitments" made by President Bill Clinton. The first was to promise some 10,000 troops to assist in the withdrawal of British and French forces should our NATO allies abandon their effort. The second was to pledge a U.S. contingent of 25,000 toward a NATO force of 50,000 if a Bosnian peace agreement is concluded.

The commitment to facilitate British and French withdrawal was designed to provide a safety net to encourage the allies to carry on NATO's role in Bosnia. If a peace agreement fails, the nearly inevitable British and French withdrawal is expected to last 24 weeks. There are plans to cut that period in half by leaving equipment behind. But I have reason to believe that Britain would reject such a proposal and I would be astonished if France had a different view.

Whatever the schedule, that U.S. forces were being committed while allied troops were withdrawn, could tempt the three Bosnian rivals--Croats, Muslims and Serbs--to involve the United States in their struggle. At a moment when our allies have washed their hands of the affair, our military commitment would become increasingly lonely. The deployment of U.S. forces to cover a British and French retreat is the most precarious option; but U.S. refusal to police a settlement is likely to make deployment unavoidable.

Current domestic realities permit no other choice than to obtain clear and unambiguous congressional backing. As a first step, the Administration must answer these questions: What exactly is the peacekeeping force supposed to protect? And how do we measure success?

Until now, the Administration has been extremely vague about its political objectives. This ambiguity may have been helpful in encouraging the cease-fire negotiations, but when it comes to determining what is to be safeguarded, ambiguity is dangerous and, in the end, self-defeating.

Two approaches have dominated the debate about U.S. objectives. The first treats Bosnia as Serb aggression and calls for a collective response. Convinced that Serbia should be punished, this view would fortify the Bosnian Muslims with U.S. arms, instructors and perhaps air support to resist pressures and to re-establish a multiethnic unitary state. Accordingly, a cease-fire would be tantamount to collusion with aggression. U.S. peacekeeping forces should only be used to provide a secure basis from which to compel dissident Serbs and Croats to return to a unified Bosnia.

The second approach sees Bosnia as an ethnic conflict sparked by thoughtless NATO decisions in 1991 to treat Bosnia as a unitary state, which it never was. Early resistance by the Western allies to ethnic cleansing might well have stopped the outrage, but too many brutalities have been wrought by all groups for coexistence under a single government to be a realistic option.

So far, the Administration has tried to carry water on both shoulders. Its policy has promoted a cease-fire, which implies partition, while its rhetoric has advocated a unitary multiethnic Bosnia, which is not achievable without continued war.

We need to stop dodging the central issue. An independent, ethnically diverse Bosnia would require a concerted Western strategy with a vast program of troops, arms and training and constitutional tutoring for an indefinite time. Are we and our allies prepared for such a nation-building program?

If we want an ethnically diverse unitary Bosnia, we must be prepared to pay the price--which is not peacekeeping, but the support of one side in a civil war. At the same time, if U.S. peacekeepers are deployed for whatever purpose, care should be taken to convey determination. Doubt and hesitation will invite attacks to speed our departure. Reducing the size of our troop contribution too much may also have the effect of limiting the risk to potential violators. Adversaries must understand in advance that attacks on the peacekeeping force will not, as in Somalia, go unavenged and that we will be there in sufficient force to retaliate overwhelmingly. Otherwise, our troops will, in time, become hostages.

The deployment of troops to Bosnia is a fateful decision requiring a full national debate that, in the nature of our system, must be led by the President. Specifically:

* The President must clarify U.S. political objectives, especially our view of the relationship of the three ethnic groups to each other.

* He must explain the rules of engagement, the risks and the duration of our engagement.

* There must be public agreement with our allies about strategies and rules of engagement.

* The role of Russia must be clarified.

* The Bosnian parties must agree on dividing lines and undertake not to change them by force.

* Congress must unambiguously endorse the program. The word of the President is a national asset not to be trifled with; the cohesion of NATO remains a vital national interest. But we serve neither cause if we rush into ill-defined commitments that might tear our political fabric apart.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World