WHEN President Bush announced a "no fly" zone in Iraq last week, a reporter immediately asked him: "Are you planning similar action to save the people of Bosnia who are being slaughtered?"
The president spoke of the 22-nation conference on Yugoslavia then taking place in London and referred to his consultations on a wide array of matters regarding Bosnia. When he ended his answer by playing up his concern over use of United States ground forces in Bosnia, I yearned for a follow-up question like:
"But Mr. President, I really only asked about a no-fly zone - not the use of ground troops. This very moment, Serbian war planes are raining death on innocent civilians! What prevents the US from stopping these jet attacks?"
In recent weeks, there has been an outcry for intervention in Bosnia. Senators and congressmen suggest it. The media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and many columnists, have urged the administration not to shy away from a use of force, even the most limited in a joint international effort. As these groups point out, this may be the only untried means for protecting civilian populations, stopping the carnage, and arresting the current escalation toward a
third Balkan war this century.
Yet Western leaders have chosen to both ignore and deny the means they have to influence events in the Balkans. Two obvious reasons are fear of runaway separatism in Europe and the upcoming elections.
But it is not clear what exactly holds the US administration back, since use of force in Bosnia was authorized, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, by the UN Security Council some weeks ago. The two most cited reasons are:
* The danger of a Vietnam-like quagmire. Many experts familiar with the Bosnian situation say the Vietnam analogy is false, however. Some of these were cited by George Kenney, the head of the State Department's Yugoslav desk, who resigned in disgust last week calling the London conference a "charade."
* The war is civil and tribal - so hopelessly confusing, so unimaginably complicated, that no one would know whom to attack or whom to protect.
Yet in fact there is very little disagreement about who is doing the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and who is razing Sarajevo.
Policymakers cannot go beyond what public opinion will bear. But has a sustained effort been made to present the full case to the public? Merely repeating what can't be done and arguing that only unacceptable risks lurk ahead become a means of avoidance.
TRUE, a responsible administration must evaluate the risks, the costs, and the benefits of intervention. It must think through what to do if a US Air Force plane were shot down. But this is not a case for non-involvement.
I don't think I am merely "Yugocentric" in my outlook. Yet given the nature and severity of the suffering in the former Yugoslavia and the long-term strategic issues involved, there has been little US debate on the subject. I have followed the American scene for almost half a century. After serving here 11 years (1962-1968 and 1971-1976) as a Yugoslav diplomat, I find it strange that there is no national debate, no big congressional hearings, with moral and military leaders and experts testifying on the momentous issues and stupendous changes that the end of the cold war has wrought. In previous periods, such debates did take place. The US had them on China, on Korea, on the containment policy, on the nuclear threat, on Vietnam.
Given this dearth of debate, it is difficult to imagine that the current election campaign will provide a discussion that would address the problems and requirements of the emerging new world order. Or, for that matter, bring forth both a rationale and a vision for dealing with the Yugoslav crisis and other such crises that are troubling the world and threatening its stability.
Last week's "Yugoslav Peace Conference" in London did provide an enormous forum for such a discussion. Yet, paradoxically, it represented another attempt to talk about everything except how some limited use of military force might help. Rather, it took up all the "solutions" that have already failed to protect civilians and to stop aggression and ethnic cleansing. It was ironic: While the conferees were talking and deliberating, some of the most vicious and murderous blasting of Sarajevo in the five-mont h conflict was taking place.
True, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not written off as an independent state. It was quite bracing, in fact, to hear acting US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger firmly uphold the territorial integrity of Bosnia and firmly state that no territorial aggrandizement would be recognized.
Moreover, a score of relevant and needed principles were discussed and adopted: tightening of existing sanctions; a more complete isolation of the aggressors; instituting new mechanism for continued negotiations. War crimes and trials are to be investigated and pursued.
But will any of these principles or actions suffice to make such proven warriors as Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadjic, the Serb Chetnik leader Seselj - or Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman or Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban - begin to lay down arms and cease and desist?
Don't bet one dime on that.