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Bosnia Stalemate Pro-Con: As The War In Bosnia Escalates, Anthony Lewis And A.M. Rosenthal Debate The Next Step.

By taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage and using them as human shields, Dr. Radovan Karadzic and the other Bosnian Serb leaders have defined themselves as outside law and civilization. But then that should not have been a surprise to anyone who knew their works.

Karadzic and his colleagues, after all, presided over the first attempted genocide in Europe since Hitler: the systematic murder, torture and rape that constituted ethnic cleansing. Their idea of reprisal showed up recently when Bosnian Serbs responded to Serbian defeat in neighboring Croatia by blowing up Catholic churches in the town of Banja Luka, killing a priest and a nun.

The U.N. commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith of Britain, well knew that the Serbs might retaliate against his men when he asked for NATO airstrikes. So did British, French and U.S. officials who supported the strikes. They decided to go ahead anyway because inaction against ever bolder Serbian violations - shelling Sarajevo, seizing sequestered heavy weapons - was making the U.N. position untenable.

The Serbian retaliation was characteristic in its cowardice. The Bosnian Serb forces not only took hostages but directed intensified shelling at Sarajevo and Tuzla, killing scores of civilians. That was one more war crime: Deliberate targeting of civilians has been that for generations.

What can Smith, and the politicians behind him, do in the face of the hostage-taking? The first step has been taken: making clear to Karadzic the price that he will pay if the threat to kill the hostages is carried out.

In 1904 an American, Ion Perdicaris, was kidnapped near Tangier by a local chieftain named Rassouli. Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, sent Rassouli a cable saying the United States wanted “Perdicaris alive or Rassouli dead.” Perdicaris was released.

Life is more complicated now, but the essence of the message is the same: If a single hostage is murdered, Karadzic and everyone else in the chain of command to that killing will be held responsible for murder.

But we know by now that little things like the law against murder are not likely to bother Karadzic. So do Smith and NATO and the U.N. cave in to the Serbs in order to get the hostages back?

No. The price of that weakness would be the final shattering of the U.N. Protection Force, with grisly consequences for it and for the Bosnian people. UNPROFOR would almost certainly have to be withdrawn, probably under attack, with large numbers of American and other new ground troops sent in to protect the withdrawal. Many more Bosnian Muslims and Croats would be subjected to Serbian ethnic cleansing.

The signs are that the countries involved are not, at this point, in a mood to yield. Both the British and the French have sent additional forces and weapons to take more aggressive action if necessary to secure their men’s position.

If UNPROFOR toughs it out, its commanders will try to avoid having their men in situations where the Bosnian Serbs can again pick them off. That may mean abandoning isolated Bosnian government enclaves in eastern Bosnia, where small numbers of UNPROFOR soldiers are now essentially defenseless. Would the civilian populations then be moved? How? The human problems would be ghastly.

At the same time, a more robust and defensible UNPROFOR would have to secure its position in and around Sarajevo. For one thing, it would have to seize full control of the airport, so it would not be subject to constant Serbian harassment.

Whatever is done will require a large amount of resolve and collaboration among Western leaders. Those are qualities that can hardly be taken for granted.

President Clinton has been, and is, in a curious position: determined not to have U.S. forces on the ground because of the political risk to him, yet pushing those who have troops there to be tougher toward the Serbian aggressors. It does not give him much moral or political leverage.

For the West, the cost of staying the course in Bosnia may be severe. But we can see ever more clearly what the cost of yielding to evil would be: a terrifying precedent for the peace and security of Europe.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for The New York Times.