By Trudy Rubin
A columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer
16 April 1994.
Don’t let anybody tell you that the NATO bombing strikes on Serb positions around the Bosnian town of Gorazde have sucked the United States into a new Vietnam.
The parallel is wrong, wrong, wrong.
In Vietnam, the United States — as part of a U.N. operation — is not trying to defeat the Bosnian Serbs, but rather to get them to sit down to peace talks with the Bosniak-and-Croat-led Bosnian government.
The aim is to get the Serbs to stop playing games with the United Nations, the Americans and the Russians — as they did last week by proclaiming a cease-fire, even as they were beginning a new offensive against the Bosniaks.
Secretary of Defense William Perry got it right on Monday, when he said, “We are not trying to engage the Serbs in a war. We are only trying to carry out a U.N. resolution. Our major objective is to get back to negotiations.”
Unfortunately, the Serbs have created a situation where the only way to get them to the table is to mix diplomacy with force.
Consider the history of this week’s bombing runs.
Last June the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 836, aimed at stopping the fighting around six besieged Bosniak areas into which hundreds of thousands of Bosniak refugees were crowded. The Serbs were blocking U.N. deliveries of medicine and food to these areas.
This resolution wasn’t aggression against the Serbs, nor was it an attempt to roll back Serb conquests. It was an effort to get the Serbs to stop trying to pursue more conquests and to save victims of past attacks.
Resolution 836 authorized U.N. forces to “take the necessary measures, including the use of force” in reply to bombardments or attacks against the six “safe havens,” or in order to get U.N. aid delivered to them. It also authorized NATO to use air power in coordination with the U.N. secretary-general to support U.N. forces trying to protect the safe havens.
Russia voted to approve this resolution in the Security Council. But NATO, and the United Nations held back for months from using force. Teams of negotiators from the European Union, the United Nations, the United States all tried in vain to get the parties to negotiate a solution.
All the while, Serb “ethnic cleansing” continued, as did attacks on Sarajevo, Gorazde and other areas declared U.N. safe havens.
What finally became clear this year was that there was no hope to get the Serbs to bargain seriously unless they were shown that there was a price to pay for continued fighting. The United Nations and NATO threatened to use force if the Serbs didn’t stop bombarding Sarajevo. The Serbs stopped.
Building on that success, and on a cease-fire between Bosniaks and Croats, U.S. and Russian negotiators tried to get the Serbs to return to the table. Instead they mounted a new attack on Gorazde.
But the negotiators refrained from threats of force. Defense Secretary Perry went so far as to say that the United States wouldn’t intervene to prevent Gorazde’s fall.
Did patience with the Serbs reap rewards? At first it seemed so. Bosnian Serb negotiators hinted they were about to resume talks, and Serbian officials told Russian negotiator Vitaly Churkin last weekend that all was quiet in Gorazde, and they had no plans to take the town.
The United Nations ordered NATO air strikes (with U.S. planes, which happened to be on duty on the weekend) as a last-ditch effort to prevent the Serbs from overrunning the city on Sunday.
True, only a dozen or so U.N. observers were in Gorazde, but their presence was sufficient to invoke Resolution 836.
Now the Serbs cry that the United States and United Nations are no longer neutral. But, in the words of Warren Zimmerman, a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, “We have to distinguish between being neutral and fair. You can’t be neutral between the victim and the aggressor.”
In Gorazde, the Serbs were pursuing a course that would have wrecked the U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has said openly that Serbs want to seize most of the remaining safe havens and drive out hundreds of thousands more Bosniaks.
Even Mr. Churkin, who was piqued because the United Nations didn’t give Russian prior notification of the raids, admitted to the press that the Serbs had lied to him. He is also well aware that Russian had given prior approval by voting for Resolution 836.
What’s needed now is a U.S.-Russian good cop/bad cop routine under a U.N. umbrella, whereby the threat of further air strikes is held open while the Russians make clear to their Serbian allies that the only way to save face is to sit down at the negotiating table. The Russians should be willing, despite their public display of annoyance, because they want to get the Serbs to the table, too.
And anyone who still worries about the Vietnam comparison should heed the words of ex-Ambassador Zimmerman, who said on ABC-TV’s Nightline:
Vietnam is a bad teacher in Bosnia. The Serbs are not the North Vietnamese; they are less disciplined, less sure of their objectives.”
“And we are not bound to escalate or go to ground troops. But you have to continue air strikes to let the Serbs know they must negotiate. Look at the history of this war. We cajoled the Serbs and got nowhere. The only way to get the Serbs to the table is to threaten force.”