"WE CANNOT STOP ALL WAR for all time, but we can stop some wars," said President Clinton as he called for dispatching 20,000 US troops to Bosnia. "We cannot save all women and all children, but we can save many . . . There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war."
Why is he telling us this now? A quarter of a million Yugoslavs are dead. Ten times that number have been driven from their homes. God only knows how many women and girls have been defiled by Greater Serbia's uniformed rapists. Or how many young Muslim boys and old Muslim men lie a-moldering in mass graves. War crimes have been committed on a scale not seen in Europe since Nuremberg. And now the president wants us to save lives? Now Americans should take up arms to stop the Balkan war?
"We must not turn our backs on Bosnia now," Clinton says. Why not? Turning our backs on Bosnia is something we've become expert at. We turned our backs on Bosnia as most of it was swallowed by aggressors. We turned our backs on Bosnia as UN-guaranteed "safe areas" were overrun by killers. We turned our backs on Bosnia as physical and cultural genocide overwhelmed its people. We turned our backs on Bosnia as Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's Communist dictator, funneled weapons and materiel into the hands of his throat-slitting proxies.
For four years, we have been turning our backs. Those who pleaded that only America's terrible swift sword could end the carnage were told to forget it. "Do we have the capacity to impose a settlement on people who want to continue fighting?" asked Clinton in June. "We cannot do that there." We couldn't even lift an arms embargo whose only effect was to keep the weak weak.
So "ethnic cleansing" proceeded, Bosnia finally died, and its carcass was divvied up in Dayton. Serbia's campaign of slaughter and cruelty paid off: It was awarded half of Bosnia and the blessing of the US president. Croatia, which returned Serb brutality with brutality of its own, was given the other half (fig-leafed, for now, in a Muslim-Croat "federation"). This is the peace American troops are supposed to keep. It is as if the United States went to the Persian Gulf in 1990 not to roll back Saddam's Republican Guard, but to confirm Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province.
"There are still times when America -- and America alone -- can and should make the difference for peace," declared the president this week. True. 1991 in Croatia was such a time. So were 1992, '93, and '94 in Bosnia. In November 1995, there isn't much difference left to make. When US power could have stopped the terrible evil in the Balkans, US presidents refused to stir. Now that it is too late, the White House is sounding the bugles.
I am as interventionist as they come. In 1990, I wanted not only to push Saddam out of Kuwait, but to occupy Iraq as MacArthur did Japan and turn it into a democracy ruled by law. I support a broad reading of the Monroe Doctrine. I was for bombing Libya and invading Grenada. I believe the best solution to the Cuba problem is the one John F. Kennedy envisaged: a US-armed column of Cuban freedom fighters, sent in to end Castro's tyranny and restore Cuba to its people.
But what is the point of intervening only to enforce an unjust, unworthy peace?
Yes, American prestige has been invested in the Dayton accord. Yes, if Congress refuses to sanction the US brigade, America's international standing would suffer. But the blow to American leadership would be far worse if the Bosnia mission fails. And until the goal of this murky mission is made clear, it is hard to see how it can come to any end but failure.
What is it that our troops are supposed to do? Clinton says they will keep the combatants apart, fight with anybody who picks a fight, and leave in one year. That isn't peacemaking, it's placeholding. What will have happened in a year? How will we know when the mission is completed? What will prevent the atrocities from resuming the day after the Americans leave? Or while they are there? What happens when US casualties mount and domestic opinion clamors for bringing the boys home? Will Clinton -- in the midst of the 1996 campaign -- resist the political pressure to change course? Or will he do what he always does -- waffle and equivocate and bend to the prevailing winds?
I am for projecting US power to achieve important aims. But Clinton is not a commander-in-chief who can be relied on. He is inconsistent; he vacillates; 20,000 American lives are too much to gamble on his leadership. He was a profile in weakness when US troops were killed in Somalia and an American's half-naked body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. He was timorous when the USS Harlan County was met in Port-au-Prince by Gen. Cedras's rioting goons. Even if the Dayton accord were the key to a lasting and honorable peace, Clinton hasn't the grit to see it through to the end.
An ugly peace. A dubious treaty. An ill-defined mission. A timid president. Are these the ingredients of a successful military campaign? Put me down as one interventionist who is a long way from being convinced.