The Balkans Crisis: Botched From the Beginning

WHAT is happening now in Croatia and Bosnia is the expression of a bitter truth.

The Yugoslav case, as managed so far, is hopeless. The pretense of cease-fire and negotiation has been swept aside. The world community has been unable and/or unwilling to devise, let alone enforce, a solution. The peacekeepers, who never had a peace to keep, found themselves presiding over longer or shorter pauses in the war while the parties rested and reequipped. They are now at each other again and will probably continue until the conflict burns itself out.

The world was unwilling to stop this nightmare at an early stage. It could have been done in the fall of 1991, when the Yugoslav Army helped Serb chauvinists overrun Eastern Slavonia, destroying the Croat city of Vukovar and slaughtering thousands who did not flee. Europe called a Conference on Yugoslavia that for a year mumbled through infrequent sessions to no purpose. The British chairman, Lord Carrington, observed that the Yugoslav problem would solve itself.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, leader of the Greater Serbia movement, got the message that genocide and ethnic cleansing pay. A quick NATO ultimatum, backed up with successive air attacks on military targets -- barracks, airfields, munitions dumps, and arms factories -- would have taught him different.

Instead, Europe and the United States, acting alone more or less and then through the United Nations, embarked on a convoluted process of negotiation based on the false premise that peace was the parties' common denominator.

Eminent figures like former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance were enlisted to steer them straight. Dozens of European foreign ministers have made personal appeals to the better nature of leaders who saw negotiation as just another form of warfare. Former President Jimmy Carter brokered a four-month cease-fire that was an empty formality from the start. Ask the people of Bihac and Sarajevo.

Early in 1992, the UN was brought in as a major player, deploying peacekeepers first in Croatia and then in Bosnia. This UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, was the largest operation the UN ever fielded, totaling nearly 40,000 troops, military observers, and civilian police. It has suffered some 1,500 casualties including nearly 600 killed and wounded by hostile action. The annual bill stands at just under $2 billion.

UNPROFOR has been victimized by all sides but mainly by the Bosnian Serbs. It has neither the weapons nor the mandate to protect itself. It may not intervene to stop fighting. Its main purpose is to protect the humanitarian convoys which have, with incredible fortitude, helped keep 2 1/4 million people alive in Bosnia alone. But they are totally at the mercy of the factions that control the roads.

In 1993, the UN Security Council declared six towns, including Sarajevo, safe areas, to be guarded with NATO airstrikes if necessary. All have remained isolated and viciously harassed by the surrounding Serbs. As for airstrikes, the same nations that, in NATO, are prepared to act, also sit on the Security Council making sure it does not. The Council has declared a ''no-fly zone,'' banning military flights in Bosnian air space. On one occasion, NATO did shoot down two Serb bombers. UN observers have registered nearly 4,000 ''apparent'' (and not intercepted) violations.

Now the pace of war is picking up. Croatian forces have brushed aside UN troops to regain territory lost to their Serb minority in 1991. Better armed than before, they may succeed. The Bosnian Serbs have vowed to help the Croatian Serbs but are now beset by Bosnian government forces. If things go against them, will Big Brother Serbia and the Yugoslav Army come to their aid?

As for Croatia, Mr. Milosevic is determined to keep Eastern Slavonia and its oil fields. Would he sell out the Croatian Serbs for it? Would President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia rise to the bait? How about Bosnia, where the ethnic Croats have formed a federation with the Muslims against the ethnic Serbs. Could Mr. Tudjman and Milosevic be tempted to scuttle the Bosnian government and divide the whole between them? This is the Balkans, after all.

Whatever happens, the UN and international diplomacy are not likely to influence it. Some say the UN and all the mediators should simply clear out. But they cannot. Such a confession of political bankruptcy would shake the UN, not to mention NATO and the European Union. Nor can they physically just leave.

NATO is planning to protect a withdrawal. From Croatia, it would be relatively simple; but from Bosnia, where UNPROFOR is widely dispersed, a safe departure is seen to require the introduction of some 40,000 heavily armed troops. The Clinton administration promised, a while back, to provide half. But sending an American combat division to Bosnia is certainly not on.

Better, then, to stay, feed the hungry, and watch what happens. Maybe Lord Carrington was right.

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