Sarajevo and the US National Interest

THE good news (for most of us) is that the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not leading us inexorably into World War III.

The bad news (for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina) is that the fighting there is not leading us inexorably into World War III.

Yugoslavia had long since pulled out of the Soviet orbit and into "nonaligned" status by the time the Warsaw Pact folded its tent a while back. But as a multinational state, however artificially constructed, it had borders that the whole club of nations, including the Eastern and Western alliances, was expected to respect.

Nearly 80 years ago, a political assassination in Sarajevo plunged a Europe subdivided into balance-of-power blocs into war. Now the blocs have broken up, and other structures are still struggling to establish new stabilizing roles for themselves.

In this still-to-be-defined new world order, the danger is that Bosnia doesn't imperil enough people to be deemed worth rescuing.

With the end of the cold war, the price of war has been marked down. War is now affordable by any petty tyrant with enough artillery power to blockade an airport.

The Group of Seven, meeting in Munich July 6 and 7, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), meeting in Helsinki immediately thereafter, both condemned anew the Serbian attacks on Bosnia. And there were indications at the CSCE session, notably from the Canadians, whose troops make up the largest contingent of United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia, of willingness to "support anything that will stop this fighting."

But President Bush has rejected - for the time being, at least - a personal plea from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for direct military intervention. Mr. Bush insisted, though, that "no matter what it takes," he would ensure that international humanitarian aid got through to the starving civilians.

This all-out enthusiasm for what is to the Bosnians not quite the right goal has them worried that Western aid may save them from starvation only to allow them to die later at Serbian hands.

The Bosnians seem to feel that they aren't going to be quite the priority that the Gulf situation was two years ago. "I had the impression from the remarks that he made that Vietnam was very much on his mind," Mr. Izetbegovic was quoted as saying after his meeting with Mr. Bush.

Meanwhile, other Americans have said that the United States doesn't really have a national interest in Bosnia, as it did in Kuwait, where there was oil and regional balance-of-power politics to think about. And Secretary of States James Baker III was quoted as saying the Bosnia-Herzegovina situation had "quagmire potential."

Well, what is the national interest? Is quagmire avoidance all that matters? If the US can't make intelligent decisions about the judicious use of force, can the "Vietnam syndrome" be said to have been beaten?

The Gulf war certainly brought together a mixed bag of motives, justifications, and coalition partners.

Not even the purest, most high-minded Wilsonian could expect a major power not to defend an economic interest as great as Middle East oil is to the US. Score one for Realpolitik.

On the other hand, the coalition against Iraq could quite credibly claim to be acting in behalf of the territorial integrity of sovereign states, which have a right to security against bullies. Score one for idealism and the rule of international law.

And President Bush patiently worked through UN and other channels and labored to bring allies and coalition partners along with him, where he might have acted unilaterally. Score one for a kinder, gentler superpower.

Ironically, one of the criticisms of the way the war against Saddam Hussein was prosecuted was that he wasn't "taken out," as the expression goes. But then, that was never the (publicly stated) goal of the coalition; ejecting Saddam from Kuwait was.

As President Bush moves into the final phases of his reelection campaign, his greatest strength is that he is president and has been commander in chief during an actual war, albeit one whose triumph has been somewhat tarnished in hindsight.

One of his greatest weaknesses, on the other hand, has been that he doesn't really have a program; he hasn't really made the case for why there should be a second Bush administration.

He certainly has an opportunity before him. The "new world order" remains like a title written across a page that is otherwise still blank. No one is in a better position to fill in that page than a president of the United States.

In Bosnia, Bush can demonstrate that the US sees its national interest not just in military or economic terms, but in moral terms as well.

What the US brings to the marketplace of foreign-policy ideas must include a deep-seated confidence in the value of every human being.

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