In Bosnia, Cautious - Or Simply Timid?

There is a difference between caution and timidity. Failure to make this distinction is more likely to get NATO, the United Nations, and the Clinton administration in trouble in Bosnia than is the inherent complexity of the problem. They are trying so hard to be cautious that they may end up being timid, and that is usually a prescription for failure.

There are certainly abundant reasons for caution. Bosnia is a policymaker's minefield if ever there was one, and the international community's efforts to deal with this tangled thicket demonstrate a lively awareness of its dangers.

First up to bat was the European Union, which negotiated a series of cease-fires as long ago as 1991. All of them quickly broke down. Next the UN had a go at it with no better results. It imposed an economic embargo and sent an international force in which the US refused to participate because there was no truce. Some members of the UN force were seized and held hostage for a time by the Serbs, whose arrogance increased as the UN wavered.

Then came NATO with the most robust enforcement effort yet - 60,000 troops, 20,000 of them American, in support of a comprehensive agreement. Negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, under the relentless prodding of then-Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, this agreement met the US demand for a truce, even one that may turn out to be more cosmetic than real. The agreement also laid out a timetable for elections in September 1996 and withdrawal of NATO troops by December. There is a provision for freedom of movement, and those indicted as war criminals are not allowed to hold public office.

Neither of these provisions has been observed. Both Serb and Muslim roadblocks are commonplace. Sometimes the soldiers manning the roadblocks laugh at requests by NATO patrols to remove the blocks. Sometimes they comply and then reinstitute the blocks as soon as the patrols pass.

The most prominent target of war-crimes prosecutors - Radovan Karadzic, a Serb - belatedly stepped down from leadership of the Serbian Democratic Party and is supposed to stay out of politics and leave the country. It would be surprising if he does. And what do we do if he doesn't? NATO and US military leaders resist suggestions that he should be arrested, despite an outstanding international warrant for him, possibly because they are afraid of aggravating Serb nationalism. It could also be argued that Dr. Karadzic's removal would give moderate Serbs an opportunity to assert themselves. And as past experience has so often shown, Serb behavior deteriorates as international resolve weakens.

Maybe, from the Clinton administration's point of view, the appearance is more important than the reality. US policy seems to be driven by the desire to get beyond elections (in September in Bosnia, and in November in the US) and to get US troops out of Bosnia by the December deadline with minimum casualties. It's hard to see what is driving NATO and UN policy.

It is reasonable to want to avoid being sucked into an endless, potentially bloody involvement. But there's nothing magic about the December withdrawal deadline. A cautious policy, which suggests being wise and prudent, can easily become a timid policy, which suggests being weak and irresolute.

Unexpectedly influencing this mix is the Pentagon's resistance to what it sees as "mission creep" - the incremental, sometimes invisible process by which a little involvement becomes a major national commitment.

This has its roots in Vietnam and the military's determination not to repeat that experience. But Bosnia is not Vietnam. Despite efforts by the Johnson administration to make Vietnam look like a multilateral effort, we were there essentially alone. We have allies in Bosnia, and we are supplying only one-third of the NATO force. We could have stayed in Vietnam forever with the 20,000-troop level we have in Bosnia; the mistake in Vietnam was sending 500,000.

Remembering an abortive effort to capture a warlord in Somalia increases Pentagon reluctance to go after Karadzic. But we don't have to send scouting parties looking for him or mount attacks on his headquarters; all we have to do is grab him if we see him and fly him to The Hague. If we do, some Serbs have threatened to capture unarmed UN police and hold them hostage. It makes you wonder who's in charge.

Because of his own military record (or lack of one) in Vietnam, President Clinton is more deferential to the Pentagon than most presidents. And the Pentagon, unnaturally and unexpectedly, has become the biggest dovecote in Washington. It's a peculiar mix that may turn out to be more timid than cautious.

*Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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