Pursuing War Criminals in Bosnia Is Good Policy

Clinton's hands-off approach was politically untenable. Now it's finally changing.

Critics of President Clinton's recent decision to turn up the heat on suspected war criminals in Bosnia will no doubt raise the bogyman of "mission creep." Ask the Pentagon brass why we have thus far resisted pursuing indicted war criminals in Bosnia and you'll probably receive a one-word answer: Somalia. Proving once again that terse retorts seldom make sound policy, linking Bosnia with the failed attempt to nab Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed in Somalia collapses under critical scrutiny.

For starters, Bosnia isn't Somalia. The effort to capture General Aideed lacked the moral and legal imprimatur of an International War Crimes Tribunal. And, whereas moral distinctions among Somali clans were difficult to make, the atrocities in the Balkans have been far more concentrated - 54 of the 75 indictments have been leveled against Bosnian Serbs.

Not like Somalia

In Somalia, Mogadishu's urban sprawl made it difficult to track Aideed and prevent his Houdini-like escapes. In Bosnia, suspects reportedly joyride through NATO checkpoints. Journalists in Bosnia, working with far less intelligence than SFOR (formerly IFOR) commanders, have located about half of the indicted war criminals.

Of course, responsibility for the no-pursuit approach did not lie with the Pentagon or NATO commanders in Bosnia. The military commanders simply carried out the guidance from Brussels, which takes its political cues from the powerbrokers in Washington, London, and Bonn.

Consequences of Dayton

NATO is living with the consequences of the 1995 Dayton accord, which assigns the signatories responsibility to deliver suspected war criminals to The Hague. Until very recently, Mr. Clinton had done precious little to encourage the Dayton parties to comply with this crucial task.

The Clinton administration's policy is finally changing, if only because this approach has become politically untenable. Frustration with NATO's unwillingness to help arrest suspects has given way to deep cynicism about the prospects for long-term peace. Tribunal President Antonia Cassese has suggested that the Security Council terminate the tribunal's mandate next fall if more suspected war criminals are not brought to trial.

NATO's initial reluctance to help snare indicted war criminals derives from a misreading of the conflict. In Western circles, it has become de rigueur to attribute post-cold-war killings in Bosnia (and elsewhere) to ancient ethnic hatreds. Yet ancient ethnic hatreds did not "cause" the carnage in Bosnia. Ethnic cleansing was planned by living, breathing monsters who selectively cited Balkan history to justify grisly massacres.

Allowing indicted war criminals to roam about freely is not only morally bankrupt but also bad policy. Left unshackled, killers show a disturbing tendency to kill again. And the unwillingness to punish yesterday's killers gives heart to tomorrow's killers. Imagine if President Bush had decided against capturing Manuel Noriega during "Operation Just Cause." Allowing him to remain dictator-at-large would have derailed Panama's return to democratic rule.

In Bosnia there will be no long-term peace without some measure of justice. And, notwithstanding the cry of "mission creep," justice demands that a sizable number of suspected war criminals be brought to The Hague for a fair hearing. Trying these suspects in absentia is no solution, for such an approach would raise legitimate questions about due process and undermine the tribunal's moral authority.

Not a wild goose chase

This is not an argument for NATO forces to embark on a wild goose chase. NATO forces should take measured efforts to assist local police in pursuing alleged war criminals. Such measures may include sharing intelligence (selectively) and cordoning off safe havens the accused are known to frequent. If local police are still unwilling or unable to arrest the suspects, then Washington should help create a special international police force to accomplish this mission.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is on record for more forceful action against those responsible for egregious human-rights violations. If she wants to quickly establish herself as a can-do secretary of state, then she should start rallying public support for the president's decision to tighten the noose on indicted war criminals in Bosnia.

* James H. Anderson is associate professor of international relations at Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, in Quantico, Va. The views expressed here are his own.

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