THE current crises in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia reveal the severe limitations that exist today on the use of major military force. Despite the anguish created by events in both regions and the public and parliamentary calls for action from many nations, realistic assessments preclude dramatic action. The result is a confusion between declared national goals and the reality of action.
Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian officer who, until recently, headed the United Nations peacekeeping force at the Sarajevo airport, has pointed out how vulnerable the minuscule UN force would be if wider military action were to be taken against Yugoslav Army or Serbian irregular forces. Other military experts pointed to the doubtful effectiveness of air strikes and the massive and costly effort that would be required of any serious intervention in that conflict.
The recent landing of 2,500 United States marines for maneuvers in Kuwait was intended to demonstrate the readiness of the US to defend that country against any further Iraqi aggression. But attention on the Gulf also reminds the world of the unfinished conflict within Iraq itself.
The reality appears to be today that, despite the existence of major military establishments in the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, none is prepared to consider the type of military effort that would be required to assist the beleaguered communities in Bosnia-Herzogovina or the Kurds or Shiites in Iraq. The reasons are clear. Major countries - especially the US - fear the effects on their society and their economies of a prolonged involvement in a foreign conflict. In the US this cauti on is compounded by a general reluctance to pay a cost in lives or money when the threat to American interests is not clear, especially in an election year. Finally, the global economic recession makes countries more than ever conscious of the financial costs.
In the face of these limitations, government leaders seek to respond to pressures from their publics with statements deploring the conditions in these areas and vaguely demanding action by the UN, the European Community, or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The EC has tried to end the fighting in Bosnia through bringing some or all of the parties together. But Bosnian leaders, hopeful of intervention on their side, hold back from serious efforts to find a negotiated solution. And Serb s, surviving sanctions and sensing the hollowness of the world's rhetoric, see little reason to lay down their arms.
Given the restrained policies of member governments, UN action is confined to humanitarian peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and northern Iraq and to efforts to weed out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. The limitations of such missions are carefully defined by negotiated UN Security Council resolutions and constrained by shortages in the UN budget. The UN forces in Sarajevo and in northern Iraq have saved lives and made a difference, but they are far from representing the type of intervention m any demand, but few are prepared to undertake.
Moreover, UN efforts are often - sometimes intentionally - misrepresented in the troubled areas. Serbs see the UN presence as that of an enemy. Bosnians, on the other hand, criticize the UN forces because they are not doing more. In the Middle East, the limited UN role is confused with the reports of US efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein; even after Desert Storm, one still hears from Arabs in the Gulf that the US is pressing the UN for action in order to destroy Iraq, a potentially powerful Arab state.
Massive outside military action is clearly not an option today in either northern Iraq or former Yugoslavia. Statements that propose such action will only raise unrealistic expectations or confuse UN efforts with specific national objectives. Progress is being made through deliberate steps to open avenues of relief and spur negotiations. These are the steps that now deserve support and encouragement. Although agonizingly slow to many, they represent the realistic paths to better conditions in both region s.