Commentary Magazine

The Strange Debate Over Bosnia

The carnage in Bosnia, and especially the atrocities committed against Muslims there by local Serbs, aided and abetted by the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade—the “ethnic cleansing,” the concentration camps, the shelling of civilians—have opened a new chapter in the American foreign-policy debate. The issue, generically, is a familiar one: whether the United States should use force to oppose aggression far from home. Many of the questions are also familiar. Are our own national interests at stake? Will a modest application of American arms do the job or only lead us into a quagmire? Should we turn to regional or international organizations rather than take the initiative ourselves? Can or should America be the “world’s policeman”?

What is not in the least familiar, however, is the alignment of views on this particular event. The conservative camp, which was united in support of forceful prosecution of the cold war, and which, with a few exceptions, pretty solidly backed the Gulf war, is now split down the middle on American action in Bosnia. But more remarkably, liberals, whose hallmark for twenty years has been aversion to U.S. assertiveness or interventionism abroad, have spoken up overwhelmingly in favor of taking American military action against Serbia.

When Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 confronted America with its first post-cold-war international crisis, the legacy of the preceding 25 years of debate was conspicuous: liberals were predictably dovish and conservatives were on the whole just as predictably hawkish. Bosnia has presented us with our second post-cold-war crisis, and suddenly past positions seem forgotten. This time it is hard, as they say, to tell the players without a scorecard.

The most prominent conservative advocating the use of force against Serbia has been Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Writing in her syndicated column, she has stated unequivocally:

Milosevic’s government must not be permitted to profit from its violence. It is a savage, racist enterprise for which there is no room in any new world order worth preserving.

The Center for Security Policy, led by Frank Gaffney, another former official in the Reagan administration, has also called for strikes against Serbian targets both in Bosnia and in Serbia itself:

The crisis in the former Yugoslavia requires the introduction of U.S.—and, ideally, other civilized nations’—forces on behalf of the victims of the Serbian program of territorial conquest and “ethnic cleansing.” [Emphasis in original.]

A number of other conservatives, including Patrick Glynn of the American Enterprise Institute, have joined in this call, while Paul Gigot, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has also advocated force, though somewhat more hesitantly:

Western intervention in the bloody Balkans has always been a tough call. . . . Yet if the New World Order is going to mean some sort of framework for acceptable international behavior, it’s hard to see how it doesn’t apply to Serbian aggression.

Anticipating other local crises requiring an American response, Gigot has argued that, as compared to the scale of Desert Storm, “A more discriminate use of force would even be a good precedent.”

In its own editorials the Journal has hinted at the use of force without ever quite crossing the line. In July it declared:

It may now become necessary to demonstrate to the Serbian generals that there is a considerable difference between shooting at unarmed civilians or UN blue-helmet peacekeepers and going up against well-trained, well-equipped troops supported by high-tech aircraft.

And in August:

Air strikes at military targets around Belgrade might persuade Slobodan and his Serbian generals that their adventures can no longer be conducted without cost.

In the New York Times, William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal, the more conservative of the paper’s regular columnists, have given mixed support to the use of force. Safire has called for “seizing Serbian air space, much as we have done in Kurdistan,” but has not endorsed other military measures. And as Rosenthal has seen it, “America should be Europe’s committed reserve for the Bosnia action,” ready to “join an international action—after Europe shows its good faith by sending in planes and troops to destroy Serbian artillery bombarding Sarajevo.”



Across the barricades from these former comrades-in-arms, however, one of the most prominent conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation, issued a position paper in July entitled “U.S. and Bosnia: Too Late, Wrong War.” According to this paper:

There are no vital U.S. interests at stake in the Bosnian struggle. However great the suffering and however violent the conflict in that region may be, there is no likely outcome that would seriously threaten any significant American interests.

Still, the question-begging title (is it right to fight the wrong war on time?) hinted at Heritage’s ambivalence. The famous conservative columnist George Will, on the other hand, was not in the least ambivalent. He taunted the advocates of engagement in Bosnia:

Is catharsis a suitable reason for military action? Would limited military intervention reform Serbian behavior? The Balkans are not a promising laboratory for a therapeutic foreign policy. Must we intervene to “teach” other would-be aggressors that aggression does not pay? Desert Storm was, in part, such a tutelary policy. Serbia was evidently not paying attention.

Will sees the Bosnia issue as an instance of a larger debate between moralism and realism, and he comes down strongly against the former. He even believes that the principle of national self-determination championed by Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of World War I led directly to Nazism and World War II. Against such moralism, Will thunders,

Realism is a moral duty. . . . If we do not know these things, we will find ourselves in Pandaemonium . . . the name Milton gave . . . to the capital of Hell.

A surprising ally of Will’s in this case has been his fellow syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Though often in the past a trenchant critic of realism, Krauthammer has in this instance taken the realist tack:

The United states has a special responsibility to deal with threats to global stability. Iraq confronted the world with such a threat. . . . Serbia does not. [Thus] whatever we do in Bosnia is for reasons of humanitarianism and not national interest. . . . Statesmen . . . do not have the right to launch their nations into large unfathomable military adventures, to risk not their lives but the lives of their countrymen, purely out of humanitarian feeling.



While conservatives have been debating among themselves, liberals (at least those who have been heard from) have virtually been unanimous in hawkishness. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, a voluble opponent of Desert Storm and just about every other U.S. intervention since Vietnam, was among the first to urge military action against Serbia. As early as April he wrote that the Serbian ruler

has made it about as clear as anyone can . . . that he understands only one kind of language: the language of force. . . . If we can ground Saddam Hussein’s helicopters, we can much more easily silence Slobodan Milosevic’s guns.

In August, Lewis returned to the subject, castigating President Bush as “a veritable Neville Chamberlain in refusing to face the challenge in Yugoslavia.” Then when a strong appeal by the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the defense of Bosnia appeared on the Times op-ed page, Lewis rushed into print the next day with a ringing endorsement.

Lewis’s fellow Times columnist and fellow liberal, Leslie Gelb, has been no less hawkish:

Everyone concerned with the Yugoslav problem knows there is only one decent chance to stop this horror: peacemakers have to establish the only kind of credibility killers understand. They have to convince themselves, and then convince the Milosevics, that they are ready and able to use force.

Times editorials were at first more equivocal. During April and into May, the paper ran four editorials excoriating Serbian actions and urging stronger diplomatic and economic sanctions in response, but each time it stopped short of advocating force. By late May, however, it was ready to go a small step further:

The bully who violates Bosnia’s internationally recognized borders must be confronted by an international coalition prepared to do what is necessary to put him in his place. . . . Such a coalition need not undertake armed intervention, at least not yet. [But it] can declare its willingness to use greater force, as a last resort.

As events in Bosnia went from bad to worse, the Times’s position continued to harden, so that by July it was calling for air strikes and even suggesting intervention by ground forces operating under UN auspices. The Times always posed the issue in terms of multilateral military action, but it went as far as to say that “If Europeans won’t stanch the [bloodshed], then America has to lead them in a joint rescue.”

The Washington Post has been more ambivalent. In the spring, its denunciations of Serbia were accompanied by implicit rejections of military action, but by August it too seemed ready to countenance the use of force:

Throughout denunciations, sanctions, and UN presence the outrage has, if anything, escalated. The practical difficulties and the politics of going further remain complicated and ambiguous, but what the Serbs are doing is not. The moral imperative to somehow stop them is overwhelming.

While the Post’s own voice has been somewhat convoluted, one of its liberal columnists, Richard Cohen, has spoken with directness. After news reports that the Serbs were holding Bosnians in what amounted to concentration camps, Cohen likened inaction against Serbia to America’s failure to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz. He exhorted President Bush to “galvanize the West and the United Nations to give the Serbs a swift kick to the groin.” The Post also opened its pages to a guest column by Congressman Lee Hamilton, a prominent member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who declared that “the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina and former Yugoslavia meet[s] the stern test for humanitarian intervention.”

The Los Angeles Times, another liberal newspaper, has also come down in favor of using force. As early as May, it argued that

Though the obstacles to such intervention may be many, it must be realized that Europe’s passivity before a major neo-fascist atrocity could well exact a terrible price. . . . Where there is a will . . . there is a way. . . . [A] framework for intervention and a role for NATO could be created.

By August, the paper’s exhortations to “rescu[e] the innocent from the slaughter” intensified:

Even before the most recent, sickening reports reached the world, there was abundant cause for the relevant international bodies to consider—and urgently—military action against Serbia.

Still another liberal paper of national stature, the Christian Science Monitor, advocated securing UN approval

to ground the Serbian-Yugoslav air force using mainly U.S.-NATO air power. . . . It should be made clear that, if necessary, air strikes will be considered to take out artillery in the hills above Sarajevo that can shell the airport.

Another newborn hawk spawned by Serbian aggression was Time’s Strobe Talbott. Talbott had uniquely interpreted Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika as proof that “the Soviet threat . . . never was. The doves . . . were right all along.” Now, insisting that “Bosnia is not Vietnam,” he wrote:

Slobodan Milosevic’s regime can be isolated politically and, if necessary, defeated militarily in a way that Ho Chi Minh’s could not. . . . What is needed is an all-out peacemaking effort . . . authorized by the UN but armed and manned largely by NATO and led by a U.S. that can thereby truly cure itself of the Vietnam syndrome.

(Why we would want a cure if the doves were right all along remained unexplained.)




To make sense out of this new alignment of positions, it is necessary first to make sense of the old.

From the time the Vietnam war heated up, liberals were doves and conservatives were hawks. Although this had not always been the case (from Truman’s presidency through Kennedy’s, liberals were often more assertive internationally than conservatives), during Vietnam and its aftermath the correlation became so strong that dovishness or hawkishness came to define who was liberal and who conservative. The issue was sealed, so to speak, when Senator Henry M. Jackson, who boasted the highest rating in the Senate on the scorecard of organized labor, was widely labeled a “conservative Democrat” because of his pro-military position—and when liberal hawks (myself included) abandoned their resistance to the sobriquet “neoconservative.”

Three things made liberals doves and conservatives hawks. The first was a differing assessment of Communism. Conservatives loathed it, while liberals merely rejected it. Liberals may have decried the lack of freedom under Communism, but they were more willing to credit Communist claims of advances in health, literacy, or other social and economic indicators. For example, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1984: “The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” Some liberals even saw positive things in the Communist political system. Thus, back in the Brezhnev era, the Sovietologist Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton criticized conservatives who “still overemphasize the coercive aspects of official Soviet policies and politics while underemphasizing consensual ones.”

Conservatives saw the cold war as a titanic struggle between two models of civilization, one very good and one very bad, the “city on a hill” versus the “evil empire.” Liberals decried such contrasts as “Manichean.” Indeed, they were wont to stress the parallels in behavior between the two superpowers. Accordingly, Paul Warnke, George McGovern’s chief defense adviser and Jimmy Carter’s chief arms negotiator, likened the United States and the Soviet Union to “two apes on a treadmill,” with Soviet military policies mimicking those of the United States.

The second difference was in predispositions toward the use of force. Liberal propaganda, epitomized in the movie Dr. Strangelove, made conservatives out to be warmongers. This was an egregious smear which, like many, contained just a shred of truth. In general, conservatives do take a more Hobbesian view of the inevitability of conflict between individuals and between nations; they do not welcome it, but they are anxious to be prepared for it. Liberals, on the other hand, developed the theory in the 1970’s that force had lost its utility in the modern world. As Paul Warnke, this time writing in collaboration with Leslie Gelb, put it: “Perhaps the principal lesson of the past decade is that military force is a singularly inept instrument of foreign policy.” And the Harvard historian Stanley Hoffmann announced “the increasingly obvious irrelevance of military power to most of the goals pursued by states.”

This was not merely an empirical observation but a normative one. “Violence represent[s] failure, no matter which side prevails,” wrote Meg Greenfield, the editor of the Washington Post editorial page: “What you must do when it is over is what you should have done long before”—namely, talk things over with your adversaries. Even more tellingly, President Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned to protest his government’s decision to use force in attempting to rescue the American hostages in Iran.

In place of force, liberals offered various alternatives. Secretary Vance’s deputy and acting successor, Warren Christopher, summed up the lessons he took from his four years in office in a monograph entitled Diplomacy: The Neglected Imperative. Liberals also put more stock in the efficacy of the UN and other international bodies, and where they wanted to see pressure exerted, as in the Persian Gulf, they estimated more highly than did conservatives the impact of economic sanctions.

The third difference between the two sides lay in the tension between altruism and self-interest. When the liberal, Woodrow Wilson, declared that the United States would enter World War I in order “to make the world safe for democracy,” Theodore Roosevelt captured the sentiments of conservatives in retorting: “First and foremost we are to make the world safe for ourselves.” Liberals have generally been more inclined to speak in terms of abstract principles and the well-being of mankind, conservatives in terms of national interest (though liberals have sometimes found it expedient to use the lingo of realism, especially in attacking the allegedly fanatical anti-Communism of the Reagan administration). Liberals have urged ratification of numerous UN human-rights conventions, while conservatives have warned of infringements of U.S. sovereignty. Other things being equal, liberals have been keener for foreign aid than conservatives. Other things were not equal, however, when the aid in question was military assistance, or when the proposed recipient was a strongly anti-Communist government or guerrilla movement. In those cases, roles were often reversed, with conservatives advocating aid while liberals opposed it.

In foreign policy, liberal altruism has expressed itself not only in support for affirmative acts of international generosity, but also in a dictum of national self-abnegation. In Central America, for example, liberals might concede that the Sandinista government was repugnant but they were loath to see Washington act against it because America would be acting in its own interest—out of a cold-war calculus—rather than (as they saw it) in the interest of the Nicaraguan people. This rule of self-abnegation also applied to the thorny question of relations with friendly dictators. While conservatives took a more tolerant view of such regimes (“our bastards,” as President Kennedy called them), liberals tended to give no credit to “tin-horn dictators” (in President Carter’s phrase) for their friendliness toward the United States.1




What does the end of the cold war do to these alignments? With Communism dead in Europe, conservative divisions over Bosnia are easy to understand. True, Milosevic is an old Communist who still rules high-handedly, yet the threat he represents is not a revived Communism but a belligerent Serbian nationalism. Conservatives cannot agree among themselves whether this threat engages U.S. interests sufficiently to warrant military measures. Indeed, as was already apparent in the debate about the Persian Gulf, conservatives are far from settled on a definition of U.S. interests now that the Communist threat has disappeared. They are not averse to using force, but they are hesitant to use it for purposes that are solely altruistic.

What is hard to fathom is the apparent lack of division among liberals. One would expect that the pull of their belief in altruism would clash with their reluctance to countenance force, leaving them, too, on both sides of the issue. But I have yet to uncover a single clear liberal statement against intervention. What can explain this?

Part of the answer is undoubtedly political partisanship. Since most liberals detest George Bush, many of them will readily spot the folly in his inertia on Bosnia, all the more so since his Democratic opponent Bill Clinton has positioned himself to the hawkish side of the President on this issue. By the same token, the liberals who feel this way will be the ones most eager to vent their views, while others, who approve of Bush’s caution—and there must surely be some—will prefer to hold their tongues.

Conversely, if Bush were to launch an Operation Balkan Storm, it is impossible to imagine that no liberal voices would be raised to protest such “reckless” interventionism (the term with which, ironically, Bush’s spokesman branded Clinton’s position). Just as conservatives took their orientation for so long from the goal of defeating Communism, some liberals during the 1980’s appeared to take theirs from the goal of defeating Reaganism. Where Bosnia is concerned, the vacuum of leadership in the White House may have made better people of such liberals. Absent U.S. policies as a focus for their animus, they see more clearly the depredations of other governments.

Partisanship, however, cannot be the whole explanation. Another element must lie in the lessons learned from Desert Storm. The large majority of liberals opposed the use of force against Saddam Hussein, marshaling all the arguments they had honed since Vietnam. The war would be difficult or impossible to win, they said. America would suffer grievous casualties. The Arab world would rise in revulsion against us. Above all, the same ends could be achieved peacefully through economic sanctions. These arguments were confuted devastatingly by the actual experience of the war and by the fact that two years of economic sanctions have still not broken Saddam’s defiance, even after we smashed his country. Although few if any have confessed it publicly, some of those who were so wrong have surely rethought their views.2

An additional reason why the liberals’ aversion to force has been overwhelmed in this instance by their belief in altruism is that the case is in one sense a very pure one. Where atrocities have been committed by America’s enemies—by, say, Saddam Hussein or the Vietnamese Communists—opposition to those atrocities could not be disentangled from advancement of America’s interests. In Bosnia, by contrast, America is not involved and has little direct stake. If we were to send our forces to oppose Serbian atrocities, there would be scant danger of aggrandizing ourselves. Hence our actions would be doubly altruistic. The very absence of tangible and immediate U.S. interests that, in the calculus of some conservatives, rules out intervention, ironically makes it all the more acceptable to some liberals.




If liberals have sometimes allowed their policy prescriptions to be shaped by their domestic political animosities, conservatives can be guilty of the same thing. Today, the liberal clamor for action in Bosnia may be turning some conservatives in the opposite direction. For example, the Wall Street Journal editorializes:

If Vietnam is any guide, should things start going badly, many who raise that hue and cry will quickly turn tail, transforming themselves into violent critics of any U.S. involvement.

This is the concern that has made the Pentagon the last stronghold of the Vietnam syndrome, and it is an understandable one. Anthony Lewis writes: “When Serbian gunners began lobbing shells into Dubrovnik a year ago, a few air strikes would have stopped them.” But what if this had failed to stop them? Lewis himself points out that he was an early supporter of the Vietnam war who later changed his mind. Is it any wonder that soldiers are reluctant to be sent into battle by the likes of him?

But to allow such a consideration to shape our policy is to abdicate responsibility. Weighty matters are at stake in the Bosnian crisis. The first is humanitarian. Serbian forces are waging a war against civilians.3 Contemptuous of the laws of war, they are targeting hospitals, old-age homes, and bread lines. The number of dead already is probably in five figures and may increase many-fold as winter sets in. Many have been maimed, and still more have lost their homes. Then there are the camps. Although the facts are still murky, it is apparent that prisoners have been starved, beaten, and killed. This is not Auschwitz; it is more like the camps where the Japanese held American POW’s in the Pacific, which is bad enough.

Some maintain that the Convention on Genocide is being violated. It is doubtful, however, that Serbian actions fulfill the convention’s definition, which rests on an “intent to destroy” a people. The Serbs are killing Muslims wantonly, but their intent is less to destroy them than to drive them out so as to take their land. Still, Bosnia is, even if in a minimal sense, a nation, and Serbia is trying to wipe it off the map. If not genocide, this is still a terrible crime.

Charles Krauthammer argues in principle against humanitarian military interventions: “To sacrifice an American life for a Bosnian life is commendable—but only if that life is yours.” But bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz might have cost some fliers their lives; does that justify the decision not to do it? At some extreme point, humanitarian abuses in themselves do warrant intervention. Whether things have reached that point in Bosnia is a question we have to answer if no other American interests are engaged. But is it true that no other American interests are engaged?

An isolationist case can be made that with the demise of the Soviet Union no force on earth can threaten America. Our national security—that is, the integrity of our borders and our political independence—cannot be compromised by any conceivable event in the Balkans, or anywhere else in Europe. In this view, we should continue commercial relations but withdraw from political or military involvement overseas. Adverse developments might impinge on our trade, but that would only cost us money, not lives.

This is a coherent argument, but it fails on several grounds. We are sufficiently dependent on commerce so that to opt out of world politics would make our economy hostage to fate. Further, should America abdicate, the havoc that would ensue outside our borders would break our hearts. This in turn might impel us to reengage, only then at a much higher cost. On the other hand, if we remained aloof, a power might eventually emerge commanding sufficient scientific and industrial resources to end our physical invulnerability.

Thus, even without any clear and present danger on our horizon, we have an interest in preserving peace, encouraging humane order, and preventing the emergence of a hostile imperium.



This is not to say that our interests are engaged everywhere to an equal extent. But however we measure those interests, Bosnia counts. If we measure them geographically, Europe is of the first importance, and the aggression in Bosnia threatens the stability of Europe. Unimpeded, the Serbs are almost sure to apply “ethnic cleansing” to Kosovo, a land 90-percent Albanian. This would be a still fiercer task than the one they have undertaken in Bosnia, and would almost certainly lead to fighting with Albania and might cross the threshold beyond which Turkey would feel drawn to the defense of fellow Muslims. The Serbs might also go after Macedonia and try to “cleanse” Vojvodina, which could kindle conflict with Bulgaria or Hungary. Greece could find its security affected either by events in Macedonia or by Turkish involvement.

In the eastern part of the continent, ethnic and national quarrels are simmering in Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Baltics, and elsewhere. If Milosevic goes unchecked, there will be many other Milosevics to bring these pots to full boil. Even the western part of the continent may be destabilized. The fighting in Bosnia has already generated two million refugees, and if the fighting spreads, there will be still more. Already Germany, Austria, Italy, and Hungary have begun to impose new restrictions. In Germany, dark forces have been stirred by the flood of refugees, and violent or extremist groups are also growing in France, England, Italy, and elsewhere.

If we measure our interests in terms of discouraging the emergence of forces hostile to America, then the Islamic world, like Europe, is of first importance. Not that its own response to the Bosnian crisis has been admirable. While reports were emerging from Bosnia of Muslims murdered and abused solely for being Muslims, the Islamic Conference devoted first priority at its June meeting to denouncing human-rights violations by . . . Israel, of course. Still, the most responsible and pro-American powers in the Muslim world, Turkey and Egypt, have scaled back their cooperation with Washington on Iraq to express their displeasure and embarrassment over its inaction in Bosnia.

The responsible Muslim states are not the only ones getting involved. Iran has taken the lead in pressing the issue in the Islamic Conference, and it has also begun to send some volunteers and weapons to Bosnia. Bosnia is not Iraq, but explain that to the man in the street anywhere in the Islamic world. The contrast between Desert Storm and Balkan inaction will make plenty of grist for those who preach that the West and the “great Satan” are inherently enemies of Islam. Conversely, if we rescue Bosnia, much wind will be taken out of their sails.

If we measure our interests in terms of upholding basic principles of world order, then Article 2.4 of the United Nations Charter outlawing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” is also of first importance. In the cold war, mutual fear prevented much aggression, but each superpower was relatively free to commit aggression within its own sphere of influence (although this freedom was not equally abused). The end of the cold war could mean a lessening of constraints, but a unipolar world could also make it possible for America to lead in enforcing the ban on aggression. That is exactly what George Bush seemed to mean when he invoked a “new world order” in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Opponents of action in Bosnia often say that America cannot right every wrong, which is true, and they ask why we should intervene in Bosnia sooner than Somalia, the Sudan, Moldova, or Georgia. One good answer is that we recognized Bosnia as a state, and it was admitted to the UN. The fighting in Bosnia, therefore, unlike the situation in these other places, is a matter of cross-border aggression. Compassion should lead us to do what we can to alleviate suffering wherever we can, but since we must draw some lines among different degrees of American involvement, one good place to draw them is on the principle of opposing aggression.



But if important American interests are at stake, do we have the capacity to act effectively in Bosnia? Bosnia is a much tougher nut than Iraq, we are told. But when we were debating action in the Gulf in 1990, a parade of experts told us how tough a nut Iraq was, and warned of the costs of engaging Saddam’s forces. Balkan terrain, we now hear, is more daunting militarily than that of the Gulf, and so it is. But, on the other hand, the Iraqi army numbered one million with modern arms; the Serbian forces number in the tens of thousands, with older equipment. In January 1991, Newsweek’s, military expert, a retired colonel named David Hackworth, predicted American casualties of “200 dead an hour in the opening round” against Iraq. (In the event, 100 died in the whole war.) Today, this same expert assures us that

Yugoslavia is an impossible mission. . . . Yugoslavian soldiers, irregular or regular, are the meanest mothers in the valley of death and the last tigers the United States ever wants to try to tame.

The military prowess of the Serbs has been widely recollected of late, with dramatic accounts of how Serbian guerrillas pinned down dozens of German divisions in World War II. But the historian Norman Stone reported in the London Times that he had checked with the German Military-Historical Research Office and learned that the actual number of German divisions was six, of which two were manned by Croats, and only one was front-line.

Yet however valiantly the Serbs may have fought to resist Hitler’s occupation, there is no reason to assume that they would fight with the same élan for the cause of despoiling the Bosnians. In fact, a number of press and diplomatic reports suggest that the Serbian forces in Bosnia are little more than gangs of bullies. They “are ill-disciplined, largely a ragtag group of young people without opposition,” says George Kenney, who resigned his State Department post coordinating U.S. policy for the area to protest our inaction. And the New York Times quoted a Pentagon analyst who described these forces as “loath to take casualties” and having “neither the stomach nor training” for close combat.

In any event, the Yugoslav Partisans in World War II were not all Serbs. Some were even Bosnians. This suggests that U.S. intervention in Bosnia need not mean the introduction of ground forces. Rather, we could begin by arming the Bosnians. We could also help them by grounding Serbian aircraft and by striking Serbian guns, communications, and military assets from the air.

Would this work? Well, the Serbs gave up when they met resistance in Slovenia, and in Croatia they settled for what they had already grabbed once a local resistance got organized. Supporting Bosnia would not get us into a quagmire; it would more likely convince the Serbs to back down.

Should we wait for Europe to lead, as A.M. Rosenthal suggests, or for UN action? If we do, we will wait forever. Left to their own devices, Europe will not lead and the UN will not act. (The one concrete measure the UN has taken following European leadership in this crisis was the imposition of the absurdly unjust arms embargo on all parties in Yugoslavia, the effect of which was to disarm the victims without hampering the aggressors.) We should seek UN authorization in whatever form we can get it, and we should seek the collaboration of as many European and other allied states as we can muster (we know that some will go along). But nothing useful will happen without American leadership.

It is quite true that Bosnia is above all a European problem, but European actions since Yugoslavia began to unravel testify eloquently to the sad fact that Europe is not ready to take care of itself. The Heritage Foundation maintains that this is the result of its “long dependency on the U.S.” The implication is that if it is forced to be independent, Europe will rise to the occasion. But throughout this century, Europe has shown no aptitude for self-preservation in the absence of American help. On its own, it spawned Nazism, Communism, and two world wars. If post-Soviet Europe is ever to achieve political maturity, this is more likely to happen if we lead it by the hand than if we push it from the nest.




The Bosnia crisis has shattered the mold. With the end of the cold war, we will all find new allies and adversaries in our debates on foreign policy. As we sally forth into this uncharted world, what guidance can we derive from the old debates? After the fall of Communism, what can we conclude about the issues that have divided doves and hawks over the last quarter-century?

We have learned from the people who lived under it that Communism was every bit as evil as its strongest opponents claimed. The struggle between Communism and democracy really was Manichean. This should remind us to place high priority on bringing down those Communist regimes that remain, bearing in mind that three times as many people are still living under Communism in Asia as ever lived under it in Europe. It should also teach us to value the American experiment more highly than some liberals have been wont to do. We should, as Jeane Kirkpatrick has said, face the truth about ourselves no matter how pleasant it may be. And we should never forget that democracy is a great good which we should do our best to advance wherever we can.

We have also learned that the old debate about the use of force was largely a fraud. The basic guidelines about using force should never have been hard to puzzle out. Violence is always a grave undertaking and always should be a last resort—not that every other option can be tried first, but they should all be considered first. But when the violence of others needs to be resisted there is rarely any alternative means. Economic sanctions will stop few aggressors; diplomacy fewer still. Diplomacy is nothing more than the act of communication between governments. It is essential, perhaps, but of no weight in itself. One may need a telephone to call the police, but the telephone is hardly a substitute for the police. The reason that Milosevic does not take his hands off Bosnia and that Saddam would not leave Kuwait is not that we failed to inform them that this was our wish.

The elevation of diplomacy to a “neglected imperative” flowed from the idea that the cold war was in some sense the fruit of misunderstanding. But what has been confirmed since the Soviet collapse is that we feared Soviet intentions because we understood them only too well, and that those who placed the greatest emphasis on military deterrence understood them best. The allegation that American hawks in some sense relished the use of force—implicit in the oft-repeated charge that Reagan saw it as a “first resort”—was a calumny.

Liberals who advocate the use of force in Bosnia should absorb the lesson that America must remain well-armed. The Persian Gulf yesterday, the Balkans today, who knows where our consciences will be seared or our interests compromised tomorrow? If we are to use force for reasons that are even in part altruistic, we must be all the more abstemious with American lives. This means we must have the most sophisticated, “gold-plated,” “redundant” arms that our engineers can dream up. We cannot eviscerate the defense budget one day and send America to the rescue the next.

As for the clash between altruism and self-interest, the cold war holds fewer lessons, and the argument will go on. For my part, I lean toward a policy encompassing a large measure of altruism. It is true that the moral rules for states cannot be identical to those for individuals, but when we act collectively as a nation we are not excused from all moral considerations. Our duties to people in other countries are less compelling than our duties to our fellow citizens, just as our duties to the latter are less urgent than those to our families and dependents. But that does not mean they are nil. And as technology brings other countries closer, our own fate is increasingly entwined with theirs.

It is folly, however, to believe that altruism requires national self-abnegation, that America needs, as Stanley Hoffmann once put it, to “curb” its “aggressive nationalism” in the interests of world order. On the contrary, the only hope for world order lies in American assertiveness. Twice now—in 1945 with its nuclear monopoly and in 1991 with the disappearance of the rival superpower—America has found itself reigning supreme. But even when we enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, there was no danger from America of what Senator J. William Fulbright later called an “arrogance of power.” Nor is there any such danger now. Rather the danger, as the poor Bosnians could tell us, comes from the opposite direction: from an American abdication of power.


1 Further to the Left, this attitude took on a morbidly humorous aspect: regimes were approved precisely to the degree that they were hostile to America. Thus the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) published a paean to the Somali dictator Siad Barre when he was aligned with the Soviet Union. But when the Soviets embraced the new dictatorship that emerged in Ethiopia in the mid-1970's, Somalia felt impelled to turn to the West, leading IPS to discover that Siad was actually a reactionary.

2 One exception was the Times's Leslie Gelb, who hastened to acknowledge errors, but had little to confess, since on the main issue, the need to confront Iraqi aggression with force, he was one of the few liberals who had been right.

3 Bosnian forces have also attacked Serbian civilians, but by most accounts these episodes have been infrequent and evidently retaliatory.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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