THE resignations within the past year of four State Department officers in disagreement with United States policy on Bosnia point to dilemmas for all involved.
The Bosnian issue has galvanized dissatisfaction within the lower levels of the State Department as have few issues in recent years. Opposition to current policy is created not only by daily reminders of the horrors of conflict and ``ethnic cleansing,'' but also by the feeling that the US response is inconsistent and encourages similar ruthlessness elsewhere in the post-cold-war world. Critics of the policy endorse a relaxation of the arms embargo for the Bosnian Muslims and military action against Serbia, as initially proposed by the Clinton administration. The most recent resignations were triggered by US pressure on the Bosnian Muslims to sign the latest peace agreement, pressure seen as condoning Serb and Croat aggression.
The actions of the four men are understandable. Daily involvement in a foreign policy crisis is an intense experience, even when one agrees with the official approach. Frustrations are compounded with the turn of events and the absence of a clear way out. Not surprisingly, men and women in such situations think constantly of how they as individuals can influence the official response.
Top levels of the State Department cannot ignore such conspicuous dissent. Although a secretary may not counsel against such resignations, he or she would be troubled by the impact of a display of open opposition to policies on the influence of the department in the government as a whole. Such manifestations give ammunition to those in the White House, traditionally suspicious of career diplomats, who say that the department cannot be trusted to carry out a president's policies.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with the signers and presumably explained to them the broader dilemmas facing the US. But such a dialogue between the State Department's senior officers and those working below the assistant secretary level is frequently inhibited by fears of leaks and commitments of secrecy, particularly to the White House. Lower-level officers too often receive what for them is an unsatisfactory reiteration of known positions.
The actions of the younger officers do serve to raise public consciousness of the issue. Americans respect the act of courage demonstrated in such resignations. But only time will tell whether the actions contribute to a mobilization of counter opinion. In the Bosnian case, those who call for a more active American role face deep US reluctance to become embroiled in the tangled and bloody affairs of the former Yugoslavia.
Members of a career diplomatic corps are expected to serve an elected administration - making their views known, but accepting and working within the ultimate decisions of the president. The decision to resign from an official position as an act of protest must, in the last analysis, be motivated by a feeling that, regardless of the consequences, one can no longer in good conscience be associated with that position.
Resignation in these circumstances is understandable, but it should not be undertaken with the expectation that it will make the task of the State Department any easier or automatically mobilize opinion in support of alternatives.