THE concept of "ethnic cleansing" is so hateful that what Serbia is doing to Bosnia and Croatia raises anew and with special force the question of when considerations of justice, fairness, and decency compel international action.
If we can go to war to stop Iraq from taking over Kuwait, why should we not go to war to stop the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia?
In the first place, although the affront to human dignity and international law may be approximately equal, in other respects there are vast differences. One of these is that it was practical to act against Iraq, and it is not practical to act against Serbia. The move against Iraq had worldwide support, but the rest of the world has been hesitant to move against Serbia.
Moreover, the Balkan conflict has many more parallels around the world than does Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. There are many other countries where ethnic or other disputes are currently violating, or threatening to violate, or have recently violated, international order. A partial list, in no particular order, would include Haiti, Somalia, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and South Africa.
Some of these situations are more offensive than others, some more directly involve United States interests, and some are more susceptible to outside influence than others. Making choices among them involves hardheaded tradeoffs, and some of these are heartbreaking.
Are we going to watch while Serbs kill Bosnians and create hundreds of thousands of new refugees?
Before we answer in the negative, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to stop it. And we need to remember that the mighty German Army, more ruthless than the American Army is prepared to be, could not pacify Yugoslavia in World War II.
Are we going to watch millions of Somalis starve to death? If we feed them, are we willing to send the Army to insure that the food gets to those who are starving and not those who are looting? And are we then willing to join other countries to impose political order on the country? Are we willing, again joining with others, to underwrite an economic-development program which we hope will prevent starvation from recurring? Or are we prepared to accept the brutal contention that famine may be nature's sol ution to overpopulation? The answer to this question is almost certainly no, but sometime we'll have to face it.
IN Cambodia, we watched while the murderous regime of Pol Pot may have killed as many as 3 million persons in the 1970s.
The US bears a part of the responsibility for this, because its precipitate withdrawal in 1975 (following its earlier pervasive presence) paved the way for Pol Pot's takeover. The United Nations is now overseeing an uneasy truce in Cambodia while trying to organize elections and a civilian government in a country which literally lost the generation of its people who ought to be doing this instead of the UN.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was only slightly less outrageous than the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Soviets at least had a fig leaf of respectability (albeit a transparent one) in the form of a puppet Afghan government.
The US supplied the weapons that Afghan rebels used to drive the Soviet Union from their country, a defeat which no doubt contributed to the breakup of the USSR. Now Afghans are using these same weapons to fight each other, and the Afghan people are probably suffering as much as they did when the Soviets were there, but nobody in the outside world is proposing to do anything about it.
In Haiti, there is stalemate and decline. Popularly elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, the darling of the masses and the ogre of the elite, is in exile. The Organization of American States (OAS), strongly supported by the US, has imposed an embargo which it refuses to lift until Aristide is back in power.
The OAS has allowed so many democratic Latin American governments to be sacrificed on the altar of nonintervention that one hesitates to criticize its newly found activism. But the fact is that the effect of the embargo is to hurt Aristide's supporters (whom it is supposed to help) more than his opponents.
The sad truth is that neither the US nor the UN can solve, or even ameliorate, all the problems of the world. The trick of foreign policy is knowing which ones to tackle and then doing it so as not to make them worse.