The greatest of the many dangers of the president’s “peace enforcement” plan for Bosnia is that it could wind up further undermining America’s 50-year-old foreign policy of internationalism.
Vietnam started, too, with limited purposes in service of a universal goal (containing communism, in that case.) And it ended with a goal of merely getting our prisoners home – and with years of disillusionment. President Clinton, who cut his political teeth on opposition to the war in Vietnam, has learned some of the lessons of that conflict, but not the most important one: Don’t send troops into a war unless you have a way to win and get out.
Yes, of course, “peace enforcement” is not war, supposedly. But it also is not mere “peacekeeping,” and in Bosnia even the latter resulted in the deaths of more than 200 United Nations troops. When the president says that the United States mission “may well involve casualties,” and that if U.S. troops are attacked “they will have the authority to respond immediately and . . . with overwhelming force,” what then follows, if not war?
It won’t be conventional war, naturally, the kind where our tanks, artillery and aircraft would give us the clear advantage, as in the Gulf War. Instead it will be snipers and booby traps and terrorist attacks and land mines and prisoners of war – like Vietnam.
The president has said that this “mission will be precisely defined with clear realistic goals that can be achieved in a definite period,” but if our troops do come under attack and body bags do start arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, what will be our “precise mission” at that point?
If the answer were truly the imposition of “overwhelming force,” one could at least assume that the price might possibly be worth it in the long run. America would go to war in the Balkans, probably for the clear purpose of defeating Serbia and imposing a new regime. Maybe that would assert American leadership in volatile Eastern Europe, gain friends in Muslim countries and discourage future ethnic blood baths.
But one cannot help sensing that this president, who is guided by public opinion polls the way ancient monarchs were guided by superstitious auguries, will go south as soon as his ratings do. Then what happens to American prestige and leadership? The worst outcome is not to stay out, but to jump in, only to jump out again. In the language of the street, “If you are stupid enough to pull a gun on someone, be smart enough to be ready to use it.” Is “On to Belgrade!” to be our battle cry when the fighting starts, or “Back to Washington”?
In explaining to the American people and Congress why he had avoided direct intervention earlier, the president said, “I decided that American ground troops should not fight a war in Bosnia because the United States could not force peace on Bosnia’s warring ethnic groups: the Serbs, Croats and Muslims.” Just so. But why does he think he has “forced” that outcome now, when the Bosnian Serbs are still uncommitted and when whatever commitments are made on paper mean so little in the Balkans anyhow? There have been 34 “truces” and “cease-fires” and other “agreements” before this one, and none has held up. What enables peacekeeping is a manifest and genuine desire for peace on all sides or, even better, the defeat and disarmament of the aggressors. Is someone planning to go door to door to disarm the Bosnian Serbs?
The president is likely to get the support of Congress for his policy. He has them in a box, since the country’s word has been given. But he has erred in not consulting the Republican majority before now (reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance at Versailles) and he will reap the consequences if the “peace” falls apart.
It could have been different. The United States could have taken sides earlier and stronger (we’re going to train the Muslims now, and only the Muslims, anyway), without sending in troops. The president could have used air power more. He could have made the Bosnian Serbs call for peace. On the other hand, he could have gone in with a much bigger force.
The latter would have been a hard sell, like the Gulf War. But are we not risking the likelihood of Vietnam-style escalation this way? America’s 20,000 troops amount to roughly the number stationed at one U.S. base (Fort Lewis, for example), and, with 40,000 other troops, they will be posted to a complex, mountainous territory the size of one-third of Washington state. This force, especially if it is stationary, is both too big to stay out of trouble and too small to control such a large area.
“It is the power of our ideas, even more than our size, our wealth and our military might,” that makes us influential in the world, Clinton says. That is political speechwriters’ talk. Ideas that aren’t followed up are influential, but not in the ways intended.
In his poem, “America,” Goethe told his friends across the ocean, “You have it better,” because, unlike Europe, America, doesn’t have “ghosts.” The Balkans, particularly, are full of ghosts – haunting memories that can make even current-day peoples behave in deceitful, brutal, ruthless ways. In America, moreover, we do have some of our own ghosts now. One that we ought to be thinking about – apparently still is not exorcised – is Vietnam.