Bosnia and Conscience

BOSNIA has now endured 21 months of killing and chaos, for which the Milosevic regime in Serbia is responsible. For anyone who can still bear to watch, the ongoing siege of Sarajevo is something akin to a thousand Rodney King beating tapes per day. The cosmopolitan city lies helpless - freezing and hungry - under ceaseless mortar and sniper attack; last Sunday the UN counted 700 shells fired from Serb weapons in the hills ringing the city. Reporters there now use ``250,000'' as a casualty figure for the 21 months.

That a quarter of a million people may have been slaughtered in Europe is not how history was supposed to turn out. What is most notable at year's end, given the magnitude of the crime, is how routinely the story is treated, how easily dismissed, and how skillfully Western governments have redefined the truth of the crime so that no one feels a need to help stop it.

Actually, for those who felt, as we did, that democratic nations should help stop fascism and the killing of innocent people, the year started promisingly. Incoming President Clinton seemed to recognize the strategic and moral dangers of a genocide in Europe. The State Department's Policy Review Document No. 1 for the Clinton White House was not on Russia, but Bosnia. Madeleine Albright, Clinton's UN ambassador, said in January that Bosnia was the ``highest [US] foreign policy priority.'' At his Jan. 13 confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the Serb campaign of ``ethnic cleansing'' in Bosnia resulted in ``near genocidal conditions, or perhaps really genocidal conditions.''

We argued that while the US cannot be the policeman for the world, there are times when strategic and moral crises align sufficiently to require action. Bosnia was, and is, such a case. A vacuum of law and authority exists after the cold war. NATO and Europe's stability is challenged by nationalism. There was a genocide.

Yet by May the Clinton administration began to change. Mr. Christopher said Bosnia was not in the US security interest. On May 18 he backed off the documented fact of a Serb-led genocide in Bosnia, saying ``all sides had committed atrocities.'' Cables, reports, testimony, and evidence to the contrary, the White House redefined Bosnia as an ``ethnic feud'' and began a strategy to get the problem off Page 1; this dashed hopes of salvaging a multi-ethnic, democratic European state. That Europe could not face Bosnia without US leadership is today attested by the 1.5 million refugees from the conflict.

Redefining Bosnia was more than a policy shift. It means we have all strayed further from telling the truth about what has happened. US officials balk at acknowledging that in 1992 and '93 a whole people were killed and driven away because of their ethnicity. So onerous was the gap between US statements and diplomacy about Bosnia that three key State Department officers resigned - unheard of since Vietnam.

Constructive action on Yugoslavia requires confronting the truth. What is at stake is attested by the popularity of the fascist Zhirinovsky in Russia.

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