The Bosnia Dilemma - What to Do?

Weep, ponder, seek understanding, hold a Geneva conference

I NEVER thought the transition to a post-cold-war era would be like pushing open a well-oiled gate into a sunny meadow. But I never imagined it would be this present terrifying roller-coaster ride into the unknown. Hang on to your pocketbooks, make sure your sunglasses are secure! It's Tajikistan! It's Cambodia! It's Bosnia....

I weep for Muslim families uprooted, torn apart, killed, defiled. For Serbian and Croatian men held in the grip of old savageries. For the women who, I think, too often forgive or even encourage what their menfolk do.

But what does one say to our national leaders? I am amazed by the confident drumbeat of American columnists. "We have to do this!" "On no account do that!" "Bomb!" "Don't bomb!" "Fifty thousand ground troops!" "Not even with half a million!"

How on earth do these writers know enough to make these firm, often strident, recommendations? Did they learn so much more than I about the tangled histories among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in Bosnia and the rest of former Yugoslavia? Do they know so much more than I about whether statements from European leaders should be taken at exact face value, how Russia's government will react, or probable outcomes of this or that action within the Muslim world?

I don't think so. Indeed, when writing about Bosnia, I think it is unseemly for anyone who is not a "Yugoslav" specialist to even think to have answers. For the rest of us, even identifying the right questions would be a contribution.

A year or so ago, Vaclav Havel wrote in an essay that people spend too much time trying to explain, when what is needed more is to try to understand. I agreed with him then. I agree with him now.

One thing we need to understand is why Bosnia is such a hot issue. Massive campaigns of killing and inhumanity are under way elsewhere as well - in southern Sudan, in Myanmar, and maybe in East Timor. Is Bosnia worse than those situations? Or is it just that these are the atrocities that the TV networks have decided are the ones we should see? If Bosnia is not "worse," and it may well not be, then what is it that forces us to pay attention anyway? What are the stakes there?

Bosnia is a multi-faceted challenge. First, to Europeans, and to the ideal they have held of "Europe whole and free." It is also caught in the tangled web of relations between "the West" and "the Muslim world." It is undoubtedly an issue in relations between "the West" and Russia. It also has lessons within "the West" - between the United States and Europe.

The crisis in Bosnia is not, primarily, a direct responsibility of the US. We have a huge impact, for good or ill, on the situation by virtue of what our president decides to do. But if the president misjudges the situation and things go terribly wrong, we can walk away from Bosnia as we did from Lebanon 10 years ago. Our direct interests would only be a little affected. This is not true for Europe.

Bosnia is a defining challenge for the new world order.

"The new world - what?" cynics might snicker. Our country is broad, powerful, and can seem very self-sufficient. People from smaller, more vulnerable nations look at the question of order or disorder in the global environment much more seriously. Because we are not as self-sufficient as we seem, we should do the same.

So what to do? Weep some. Ponder human capacity for inhumanity. Seek more understanding of all dimensions of this terrible issue. All are necessary precursors to doing anything effective.

Then, I think, this question needs to be placed in the world context in which it belongs. Partial efforts have been made. But nothing has worked. How about a broader, more serious international effort? Perhaps a rapidly-convened, UN-sponsored meeting in Geneva, with high- level representatives from G-7 countries, Russia, Iran, and other Muslim nations? A special session of the General Assembly?

Such high-profile deliberations are what all interested parties inside and outside Bosnia should see. They would symbolize how seriously the world looks at Bosnia, and allow participants to pool all efforts to find a solution. And then, if diplomacy at his highest level fails, all parties would have a continuing channel in which to discuss other options.

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