By Charles Kupchan
Special to the Los Angeles Times
Published in: Eugene Register-Guard
30 July 1995, page: Section 3, Front and 4B.
WE AMERICANS SHOULD hang our heads in shame. The Serbs are in the midst of cleansing eastern Bosnia of its Bosniaks. The dwindling Bosniak population still alive in Bosnia is suffering grievously. And the Western democracies are doing little more than watching.
Granted, it is not too late to come to the defense of Sarajevo and the remaining territory still under Bosnian control. Nor is it too late to punish the Serbs for flouting virtually every international norm and making a mockery of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations and their members.
But it is too late to prevent what could prove to be one of the most devastating legacies of the slaughter in Bosnia: the rot of the West.
Since the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Western democracies have exhibited such strategic myopia, moral weakness and political paralysis that their behavior calls into question the very existence of a Western community of civic states. Although the Serbs have not yet dealt the West total defeat, it is time to take stock and ask not what the war says about Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats, but what it says about us.
The United States and its West European allies have, from the outset, disagreed over how to deal with Yugoslavia’s dissolution. In the name of preserving cohesion with the Western alliance, they drifted toward the lowest common denominator: sending to Bosnia lightly armed U.N. troops to deliver humanitarian assistance and dissuade the Serbs from more attacks on Bosniak enclaves.
It is bad enough that the West offered Bosnia so little help. It is even worse that NATO has failed to live up to its promise to retaliate against Serb aggression and has instead stood by as the safe areas fall one by one. So much for the West’s credibility.
To be sure, we should be wary of going to war to preserve credibility — as the Vietnam War made clear. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other architects of the war in Vietnam were wrong to think that dominoes fall. The defeat of South Vietnam and the consequent loss of U.S. credibility did not lead to the spread of communism and other more direct challenges to the vital interests of the United States.
Similarly, just because the West has not stopped Serb aggression in Bosnia does not mean that ethnic groups all over Eastern Europe will rise up and commit genocide against their neighbors. Fortunately, few groups have become as infected with virulent nationalism as the Serbs.
But this argument misses the point. The real damage the Vietnam War did to U.S. credibility was at home, not abroad. Americans lost faith in their government and in their country’s mission. The legitimacy of the American state began to erode and, with it, the central images that define American identity.
It is this notion of credibility that gets to the heart of why NATO’s inaction in Bosnia is eating away at the West. The lifeblood of Western democracy is moral strength and civic society. These attributes undergird NATO, the European Union and the host of other institutions that make up the West.
But these institutions and the values they embody will not survive the apathy and paralysis that have greeted this most recent bout of genocide in Europe. NATO may still exist after a multiethnic Bosnia is long gone. But it will be a hollow shell, devoid of the sense of purpose that sustained it for almost five decades.
Not only the vitality of the West’s international institutions is on the line. The devastation in Bosnia and the absence of efforts to stop it are also taking a high toll on the states that constitute the West. Voters across Western Europe and in the United States are in a foul temper, distrustful of, if not hostile toward, traditional parties and governing elites.
Part of the reason is that the collapse of the Society Union, although a triumph of liberal democracy, has blurred the West’s self-image. No longer can the fight against communism legitimate the nation-state and serve as the glue binding together the liberal democracies. The West and its constituent members have to define themselves from within.
Developments in Bosnia have made matters far worse. The values that triumphed with the collapse of communism are being trampled by the Serbs. If the West represents a community held together by shared purposes and moral strength, why isn’t it taking a stand in Bosnia, where its purposes and moral strength are under direct attack? What is left of the Western democracies if they are not longer willing to defend civic society in the heart of Europe?
Although proximity should make the wall of a dying country louder in Europe than in the United States, Bosnia’s vivisection is exacting its highest costs here. The United States’ national identity is more infused with idealism and a sense of moral mission than that of any other country. As a multiethnic, immigrant nation, we define ourselves as members of a civic community, not an ethnic one. We are Americans because we share a political space knit together by common values and purposes, not because we share a common ancestry or culture.
The slaughter in Bosnia and our ineffectual response paints an ugly picture of the United States, painfully at odds with our own self-image. How can we look ourselves in the face when Sarajevo, a city as cosmopolitan as any in the West, is being strangled? This is why the powerful smell of rot is now filling our nostrils.
The West’s death knell is already ringing in Sarajevo. Before it is too late, the West just might be able to revitalize and reconstitute itself. But this renewal will not come about of its own accord. And it will be an uphill battle: It is far easier to lose moral credibility that restore it.
For starters, the Western democracies must put a stop to the butchery in Bosnia. Even though it is woefully late, NATO should make clear that it will carry our massive air attacks against the Serbs and lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Bosniaks if Serb aggression does not cease. .Needless to say, NATO must make good on its promise if its deterrent threats fall to stop the Bosnian genocide.
Western leaders must also find some way of mustering far more political and moral courage than they have so far. The chief obstacle to further Western involvement has been fear — fear that domestic political costs will mount as soon as the body bags begin to come home.
This reluctance to take political risks represents not just a failure of leadership, but a fundamental miscalculation. What will restore faith in Clinton’s presidency is not another compromise, but a bold decision to stop the war in Bosnia and to see that decision through. Not just Clinton’s political fortunes but the fate of Bosnia and the integrity of the West will be the beneficiary.
Whatever the outcome in Bosnia, the West must confront the fact that it is unraveling. Rebuilding confidence in Western institutions and governments means not just re-engaging the West in shaping a tolerable international order, but re-engaging citizens in the states they are increasingly estranged from. Both tasks entail restoring civic values and moral strength to the forefront of politics. Both tasks entail ensuring that the state pursue policies far more consistent with our national identities and the central images that define the bounds of political legitimacy.
It is not just the fate of Bosniaks or stability in the Balkans that is at stake in Bosnia. It is the future of the West.
The suffering in Sarajevo is reason enough to intervene forcefully. If we can’t bring ourselves to take a stand for the Bosnian Bosniaks, maybe we can muster the courage to take a stand for ourselves.