Why A Wider War In Bosnia Would Reap The Whirlwind

On June 3, defense ministers from the European Union and NATO gathered in Paris to announce plans for sending a rapid-reaction force to Bosnia. They talked tough, and it seemed that at last the pictures of hundreds of U.N. troops held hostage by Bosnian Serb fighters just might have spurred a Western consensus on how to deal with the mess in the former Yugoslavia.

But committing up to 10,000 fresh British, French, and Dutch troops to Bosnia is unlikely to bring the conflict to a conclusion--even though the Serbs are releasing their U.N. hostages. In fact, the buildup probably increases the risks of a wider conflict, with more Western casualties. That in turn might well produce a U.N. withdrawal that could rattle the already shaky Western alliance.

The hope in some circles is that the Bosnian Serbs will now be intimidated into negotiating a diplomatic division of Bosnia. But the Serbs have seen so much Western ambivalence in the past three years that they are unlikely to retreat to the bargaining table unless they are hit hard. "If the U.N. forces would like the Serbs to be cooperative, then they need to signal to the Serbs they have the will and the capability to take them on," says Zalmay M. Khalilzad, a former Pentagon official now at Rand Corp. But the West probably won't be able to put together a strong enough force to score a decisive victory over the seasoned Serb fighters.

PURELY HUMANITARIAN? Still, for their own domestic reasons, the Europeans, who are already the main contributors to the 22,500 strong U.N. force in Bosnia, are going to be increasingly tempted to battle the Serbs. British Prime Minister John Major, whose grip on power is ever so tenuous, has shifted to tough talk on Bosnia--perhaps to offset his reputation for indecisiveness. At the same time, the Bosnian debacle presents France's new President, Jacques Chirac, with an opportunity to reassert France's flagging leadership in Europe. A European-led resolution of the Bosnian debacle would also keep alive the French-backed idea of a European security force independent of the U.S.

Of course, the Europeans insist that their mission in Bosnia remains humanitarian; but even using the reinforcements to perform humanitarian tasks will likely lead to clashes. For instance, efforts to fulfill the terms of the U.N. mandate by removing weapons from Sarajevo's demilitarized zone are certain to spark warfare with the Serbs. So would a scheme, pushed by the French, to force open a land corridor for humanitarian shipments from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to Sarajevo.

If such a confrontation occurs and Western casualties rise, the current consensus would quickly evaporate. In fact, the divisions in the Western alliance that have made resolving the Bosnian crisis so difficult would widen. After all, the U.S. thinks it has much less at stake than do the Europeans. Clinton is assigning helicopter gunships and other support to the new force in hopes of preserving the status quo, in which the Europeans provide the ground troops while the U.S. largely critiques Bosnia policy from the sidelines.

The idea that the only way to handle Bosnia is to withdraw the U.N. peacekeepers and let the war burn itself out is gathering momentum in Washington. Heightened conflict would raise pullout calls to a fever pitch. That and combat losses could undermine the Europeans' new-found resolve to stare down the Bosnian Serbs. Then, the next crisis would be getting the beleaguered peacekeepers out safely and handling the nasty recriminations over a widening war inside Europe.

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