The U.S. Senate vote in favor of lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia produced reactions Thursday that reflected a global cultural divide, with European nations warning about the risks of a wider Balkan conflict while Muslim countries praised the move as a long-delayed victory for justice.
France and Britain, the leading troop contributors to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, warned that if the Americans proceed with unilateral action to remove restrictions on the sale of arms to the Balkan belligerents, they will pull out their soldiers and the U.N. mission will collapse.
“The consequences are clear for us,” said French Defense Minister Charles Millon. “If the embargo is lifted, the U.N. peacekeepers will leave.”
British Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind also deplored the Senate move because it could trigger the U.N. pullout that Western governments have been trying desperately to avoid. Writing in a London newspaper, Rifkind said, “It seems to me bizarre that we should respond to the suffering of the people of Bosnia by withdrawing what measure of assistance we can offer them and letting the fighting escalate further.”
The overwhelming margin of the 69-29 Senate vote, which Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen called “the latest culmination of the split in the West over Bosnia,” stunned many European governments.
While they recognized several months ago that the U.S. Congress was tilting in favor of lifting the arms embargo, the Europeans always assumed President Clinton would face no difficulty in exercising a veto over such a proposal. But the 69 votes in favor of lifting the arms embargo mean that its opponents have two more votes than necessary to override a presidential veto.
“Lifting the arms embargo will only mean more war,” said German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe. “The priority right now must be the need to stabilize the conflict.”
Besides drawing the Americans into the perilous pullout mission, European governments fear that a rapid escalation of the Bosnian conflict could again turn the Balkans into the tinderbox of the continent. They fear that pro-Serb Greece and pro-Muslim Turkey could be sucked into the fighting, devastating the southern flank of the NATO alliance.
In the longer term, the Europeans worry that the United States could become responsible for the salvation of the Bosnian government’s mostly Muslim forces while the Russians are forced to come to the rescue of the Serbs. That could produce a proxy war between Russia and the United States in the heart of Europe, ruining any hopes of a peaceful new order between the Atlantic and the Urals.
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev called the Senate vote “totally incomprehensible” and said it would lead to a massive influx of new and more dangerous weapons into the Balkan conflict that he fears could explode into a wider conflagration drawing in neighboring countries.
In contrast to the widespread expressions of alarm and dismay in the West, the Senate vote was applauded by many Muslim countries who have believed that the cause of the Bosnian government was abandoned by the West largely because it represents a Muslim majority.