ON May 12, the United States Senate passed nonbinding resolutions urging the president to lift the arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government, either in conjunction with allies or unilaterally. Proponents argued that as the world's only superpower, the US has a moral obligation to see that the government receives arms to defend itself against the Serbs. The House of Representatives is expected to consider similar resolutions at a later date.
Morality in international relations is an elusive concept. One can argue that the US, with its long humanitarian traditions, has a moral obligation to help the victims of aggression either by direct aid or by facilitating help from others. Yet fulfilling that obligation creates dilemmas.
The Bosnian government has not abandoned the hope that America eventually will actively support its cause. As Bosnians listen to expressions of enthusiasm in Washington for lifting the embargo, it would be naive to believe that they do not also consider that the US will facilitate the supply of military equipment.
News reports give no indication that the senators gave thought to what the US might do after the lifting of the embargo, especially if further action were taken contrary to existing UN sanctions. If Washington lifts the ban on arms unilaterally, would the US airlift arms to the Muslims despite the opposition of its allies, the Serbs, and almost certainly the Russians? Such a move seems highly unlikely. Under these circumstances, is the Senate on high moral ground when it encourages the Muslims to expect a dramatic change in Washington's policy?
Raising hopes undoubtedly also sustains Muslim resistance to any compromise that might bring peace. The United States, on the moral basis that an enforced peace would reward aggression, has resisted the Vance-Owen plan and is now unenthusiastically working with the allies and Russia on another. But is discouraging a peaceful settlement a moral stance when the alternative would appear to bring more slaughter?
Senators will deny that their debates raise false hopes. But too often in the past - the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq are examples - US rhetoric that raised prospects of American help has led others to their deaths. Those who speak of a moral obligation must consider also the impact on beleaguered peoples who are not likely to have a sophisticated understanding of nonbinding resolutions.
The moral equation is even more questionable when US senators criticize Britain and France for their opposition to lifting the embargo. From the beginning of the Bosnian crisis, the US has been on weak ground in chastising others for their positions toward the conflict when Americans have not been prepared to provide ground forces to the UN peacekeeping effort. Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine understandingly addressed this point when during the recent debate he spoke of British and French sacrifices.
Genuine reasons may well exist for US reluctance to send ground forces to Bosnia under current circumstances. US forces could become a special target. US policies against placing troops under foreign command would complicate multilateral operations. US air crews are delivering relief supplies and monitoring conflict. They stand ready to strike targets from the air. US troops are on watch in Macedonia. But those risks must appear minimal to the British, French, Canadians, and others on the ground.
Senate frustration with the Bosnian conflict is understandable. It reflects a widespread - but not universal - belief among Americans that the Muslims have been victims and that the international community should act to reverse Serbian gains. That does not translate, however, into broad support for direct US involvement in rolling back the Serbs.
In the absence of any will to support a direct US role, the moral position would be to refrain from giving false hopes to victims of the conflict. It may be immoral for a superpower to appear indifferent to a tragic conflict in a strategic area of the world. But to urge others to take risks that Americans are not prepared to share also raises serious questions of morality.