Another Winter in Bosnia - How Many More?

ANOTHER winter in Bosnia. The terrible privations, the degradations of the human spirit, the killing, the pain, the stark peering into the void beyond hopelessness: All are no doubt magnified in these months for citizens of that scorned land.

Would you sign up, or send your son or daughter, to join a peacekeeping unit there?

Most American commentators seem impressively able to express firm views on what the United States should or should not do in Bosnia. I have been baffled and morally challenged by it since the beginning. My strong personal instincts are to avoid any policy that adds to the level of violence.

I would love to be able to say I'm a total pacifist. But I cannot. I have read and reread what George Orwell wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, when that former pacifist sensed the growth of the new fascist threat in Europe. In the late '30s, he went to Spain to fight the fascists there, and during World War II he became an important propagandist for the British war effort.

I think - though I am not totally sure - that Orwell was right. Some basic principles are worth fighting for. Three years ago, I took my children to Normandy where, after poking around a couple of the D-Day invasion beaches, I took photos of them perched atop a rusty Allied tank. I was going to make Christmas cards from the photos and proudly told my father that the caption would read: ``The Triumph of Youth over Militarism.''

``My dear,'' he said, ``if our generation had not won that war, you probably would not be here to tell the tale.''

So what about Bosnia, 1994? Does the agony there pose a threat to Europe, to the world, that compares with the earlier threat of fascism?

Apologists in the US administration love to say: ``Bosnia is primarily a European problem.'' (I have also heard at least one ranking Pentagon official refer to President Clinton's early support for active intervention in Bosnia as ``populist baggage, that thank God he got rid of.'') But even if Bosnia is a European problem, does that not also have implications for global stability?

One effect the Bosnia crisis already has had is to undermine American claims to global leadership more than any other setback of the past two years. Such was one unfortunate effect of the Clinton administration's early backtracking on intervention, which horrified many Europeans by its indication of American weak will and amateurism.

Of course, policymakers in all the democracies have strong internal reasons not to intervene. A well-placed international civil servant from Norway, a country with a strong record of United Nations peacekeeping, recently agonized: ``Even in Norway, no politician these days could send troops into a situation where 15 or 20 might be killed - though they might in the process save 50,000 innocent lives.'' The same is undoubtedly true here in Washington.

So are we doomed to a situation where the democracies cannot mobilize their idealism into any effective force at all, though force may be the only way - in Bosnia even more than in Kuwait - to prevent the obliteration of an entire independent state, a member of the United Nations, recognized by all major democratic governments?

Over the medium term, perhaps the only workable way left to raise an international peacekeeping force is to have the UN raise it directly, rather than using national contingents dependent on decisions of vulnerable governments. A sort of well-trained international ``foreign legion,'' responsible to the Security Council. But such a force is nowhere in sight. For now, the immediate challenge is to limit the present erosion in morale of the UN forces that are in and around Bosnia, and to limit the human suffering of the communities of Bosnia as much as possible - by redoubling efforts to find, and demonstrate world support for, a workable political settlement.

President Clinton cannot avoid dealing with Bosnia any longer. I hope his current consultations with Europeans result in actions that mean that the people of Bosnia never have to face another winter as bleak as the present one; and that the democracies of the world and their friends demonstrate that they are prepared to uphold the basic principles of the international system - by force, if necessary.

My two eldest children are now 14 and 15. If our government or the UN assembles a force to back a credible plan for Bosnia or similar crises over the years ahead, I think I would be proud to see either of them enlist.

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