Yugoslav Policy: a Return to Isolationism

AMERICAN moral outrage over events in Yugoslavia has yet to find its voice. Instead of seeing a moral and political challenge in the bloody crisis, President George Bush casts the problem in geopolitical and strategic terms. Even so, he doesn't see any vital United States national interests at stake. Nor has public pressure or embarrassment caused him to rethink his policy of noninvolvement. Although public lack of knowledge about Yugoslavia results in a lack of public discussion or political pressure, t his should not be taken as evidence of a lack of public concern. People do care; they care a lot.

Most Americans probably can't find Yugoslavia on a map, or identify the parties to the conflict, or explain what it is about. Prospects of US military intervention raise deep misgivings - some well-founded, some not. The issues are not easy to grasp in detail. Even experts disagree. After all, what interest does the West, the US in particular, have in intervening to resolve the Yugoslav conflict - or any far-off conflict - rather than to stand aside and let it burn itself out? Where is it written, as Sta te Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutweiler once rhetorically asked, that the US is the policeman for the world?

It is not surprising that people can't take the time to inform themselves fully about Yugoslavia, or for that matter other foreign policy issues. People have to work to make a living. Given Yugoslavia's esoteric nature, plus a deficiency of political leadership in articulating the problem, the American public has had a hard time in getting a handle on the Yugoslav crisis.

But there are some straws in the wind. TV pictures of skeletal men in concentration camps hit a raw political nerve. They were Muslims in Serb camps. But it doesn't matter entirely why the men were there: It is common sense that we should stop such a thing. This may not be how the Holocaust ended, but it is how the Holocaust began. In 1945, we had the pictures and the evidence after it was over. In 1992, we know what is going on as it happens in Bosnia. Nor has the killing of civilians ended simply becau se such TV pictures have been cut back. Over 500,000 non-Serbs in Bosnia are still in a life-and-death struggle.

Bosnia's victims are innocent. They share our values. They are democratic and believe in freedom. All they ask is their own state with self-determination. In the name of every moral and political value we cherish, we have a duty to help them.

Most of us understand intuitively that "ethnic cleansing," or genocide, or whatever you prefer to call it, is a terrible evil that must be defeated. Given certain pressures and passions, if we scratched the surface, it might appear in our own societies. When we compromise our principles and better nature - under the false notion that it is too difficult or dangerous to act - and tolerate such an evil in Yugoslavia, we also weaken the moral and political bonds of our own social compact. It is no accident,

given the power of an example like Yugoslavia, that we are seeing a resurgence of neo-Nazi youth in Germany. Indeed, underlying their attitude may be a calculation that if the West does not react to "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, it lacks the political will to stop similar crimes at home. Seriously, what comes next?

It is up to political leaders to chart a proper and more-detailed course. There are answers: We may not be able to stop all the violence, but we can control it, reduce its intensity. We can silence the Serb heavy guns, empty the concentration camps. We could use limited air power. We don't need Western forces on the ground.

WE can and should help the Bosnians defend themselves. For whatever misguided reasons, we continue, shamefully, to block their access to the international arms market. In effect, we are telling the Bosnians to die quietly, negotiate their surrender, lose every last trace of human dignity. What a humiliation - for them and us.

There are other compelling reasons to intervene. It would be a disaster of the first order for Europe if this conflict spread through the Balkans. A failure to stop aggression here most likely will encourage similar aggression in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. In addition, the crisis threatens the legitimacy and viability of institutions such as NATO, CSCE, and the EC, which help support international stability. US world leadership is on the line, though we may not see this now.

Still, I feel a solution must come from an ethical imperative. This crisis, funda-mentally, is about political will - defending our ideals in the context of rapid change in the world. But instead of a "New World Order," Mr. Bush gives us a new isolationism. It is terrifying for the US to admit it is powerless to stop the carnage in Bosnia. It is an admission that civil society everywhere is in danger. Instead of moving forward with a spirit of freedom sweeping the post-cold-war world, we are moving backw ard, to a 19th century Darwinian world of animal nature - red in tooth and claw.

The White House does not believe this is an issue the American people care about or understand. That is wrong. In the election this crisis may weigh more heavily on voters' minds than many believe; it may be significant in a number of key states. Tragedy cuts across political boundaries. Republicans and Democrats, from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal, are appalled at our policy of noninvolvement. If this administration cannot find the will to deal successfully with the carnage in Yugoslavia, the Amer ican people will expect the next administration to deal with it.

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