Western Waffling Opened Way for Serbians

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HAD Western determination been strong enough, the killing in what was Yugoslavia would have stopped and the road to peace opened long ago. But the wish has been entangled in cross purposes, false alternatives, wobbly parallels, and strained analogies.

Not new in human experience. St. Paul told the Corinthians, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" In this case, the mixed signals could be largely deliberate.

Prominent figures warn against involvement in someone else's civil war. But is this a civil war? Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are recognized as sovereign states. They are members of the United Nations. Their right to independence and territorial integrity has been emphasized and reemphasized by the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The UN Charter affirms the right of self-defense. To set all that aside would be a political act of the most sinister consequence worldwide.

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One variant of this excuse, with special appeal to the Europeans, is that the conflict is a regrettable but not surprising tribal war in a part of the world given to that kind of thing. Some see the Balkans as a caldron of evil perhaps best left to boil away. Britain's Lord Carrington has said that the Yugoslav crisis would solve itself.

Americans are easily impressed by the false analogy of Vietnam. But the tragedy of Vietnam stems not from the nature of the conflict but from a triple fact. The United States gave a blank check to a corrupt and incompetent government in Saigon, our military command was inadequate for that war, and our leaders imposed crippling restrictions on policy. The result: a military and political mind-set wildly irrelevant to the problem of Yugoslavia.

The quagmire thesis seeks support in the German experience of World War II. Then, it is argued, 20 German divisions were trapped by Tito's guerrillas - a portent for intervention today. This mishmash logic equates a UN effort to stop the killing and bring peace to Bosnia with a Nazi army of occupation. It also ignores the significant help Tito received from Britain and the US and the fact that Yugoslavia was a German sideshow. Adolf Hitler settled for a manageable level of violence there as he kept his l ines of communication open to Greece and fought his main war in the Soviet Union.

AS for the Serbs being proud Chetnik guerrillas who would now fight off the world, Tito's partisans made mincemeat of them in the real civil war that underlay the German occupation. Today, this assemblage of rapists and cutthroats, whose communist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, has been recycled as a nationalist demagogue, has hardly had to fight for its victories.

Since they attacked Croatia in 1991, the Serbs have used the old Yugoslav Army's enormous weapons stockpiles. They have fought opponents numerically weaker and armed only with what could be smuggled or scrounged. It takes neither courage nor skill to run tanks through unarmed villages or to rain artillery shells on terrified towns and cities. If the Serbian fighters were even a competent military force, they would have completed their conquest six months ago.

Which raises another question about the Western position. Britain and France have importuned the US not to intervene. We have 6,500 troops in Bosnia, they say, bringing food and medicine to two million people; you have none. If you, the US, act alone, Serbian retaliation will kill our men, not yours. Britain warned against American relief airdrops. What makes the argument seem either naive or disingenuous is that the troops in Bosnia are superb soldiers. If they are in danger, they should be reinforced o r pulled out. There is something seriously wrong with leaving them in place as hostages to Serbia's good will in order to feed the people whom Serbia continues to kill.

Negotiation is urged as the civilized alternative to force; but Serbia has used the pretense of negotiation and agreement only to gain time. Once the Serbs have taken all they can, they may seriously propose a cease-fire in order to keep it. They still reject the UN's demand that they disgorge what they have conquered.

Meanwhile, a frenzy of negotiation over the past 10 months has produced a Humpty Dumpty solution for Bosnia of ethnic enclaves (their people already massacred or displaced) with connecting throughways to be policed in perpetuity, no less, by an outside authority.

Opponents of intervention bemoan the absence of a clear goal, which justifies the inevitable risk. Lost in the hemming and hawing is the plainest and most compelling, the immediate and indispensable condition of peace: genocide shall not pay. To let Serbia prove the contrary would encourage imitations.

Too many hot spots exist for Yugoslavia to be minimized as a local phenomenon. Hitler started that way and, as a clear and present warning, Saddam Hussein is still around.

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