The Jewish Humanist, January 1996
Should American troops go to Bosnia?
Many Americans are having heated arguments about this question. After all, there is the risk that American soldiers will be trapped in a civil war that no outside force has the power to stop. Bosnia is not Vietnam. But it is also not Haiti.
The tragedy of Bosnia is the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Many centuries ago a single nation was split into three parts by religion. First the missionaries of Christianity divided the Slavic tribes of Yugoslavia into Catholics and Orthodox. The Croats became Catholics. The Serbs, who spoke the same language as the Croats, became Orthodox. When the Ottoman Muslim Turks conquered the area, many Serbs and Croats chose Islam. Most of the new Muslims lived in the Turkish province of Bosnia. In time the division was aggravated by literacy. The Croats wrote the language in Latin letters. The Serbs wrote the language in Cyrillic letters. And the Muslims sometimes resorted to Arabic script. What had been one became three. And, as we know, there is no hatred like the hatred inspired by religious faith.
The Serbs were the first to achieve independence. After the defeat of their Austrian and Turkish enemies in the First World War, the Serbs created Yugoslavia. The new country brought the Croatians and Muslims under Serbian domination. The forced union did not work. The arrival of Hitler and the German army in the Second World War split the new nation into a Croatian and Serbian part. With the help of the Nazis, the Croatians and their Muslim allies carried out a war of extermination against their Serbian enemies. Together with fifty thousand Jews, over six hundred thousand Serbs perished. The Serbs never forgot this genocide.
After the Second World War, the Russians and their Communist allies decided recreate Yugoslavia. For thirty-five years th federation” was preserved by the iron will a Communist dictator called Tito. Tito tried to secularize the country and encouraged the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to intermarry. But he continued to preserve Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as sub-units of Yugoslavia. He had no alternative since the official party line did not correspond to the strong nationalist loyalties and hatreds which survived despite propaganda. The death of Tito and a world recession undid the bonds of the fragile Yugoslav nation. War was inevitable because the boundaries Tito had drawn did not correspond to the ethnic realities. The Serbs were the first aggressors, egged on by painful memories, arrogant chauvinism and the ambitions of a former Communist leader, the Serbian president Milosevic. Since the aggression in 1991, four years of war have produced three hundred thousand dead and three million refugees. And Bosnia he turned into a devastated land. Along the way genocide (euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing”) became an ordinary weapon of war.
Despite the moral outrage of the terrible genocide and the threat to peace in the Balkans, neither America, its European allies, nor the United Nations were willing or able to stop the war. America was absorbed by domestic concerns and saw no vested interest in intervention.
And Russia prolonged the war by offering its support to the Serbs. Even the nearby Germans, French and British were ineffective because their so-called unity was only a sham.
But now Clinton has decided to intervene. After all these years of indifference, his action is hardly humanitarian. It is clearly political. He needs to establish his credibility in the face of Republican victories and an aggressive Republican Congress. Having long neglected foreign affairs, he has now concluded that becoming a world leader will enhance his chances of staying in power after November 1996. What followed was the impossible “Treaty of Dayton.”
Right action often emerges from questionable motivation. The intervention in Bosnia is one of them. Regardless of Clinton’s agenda, it will provide relief to a desolate population, enhance world law and order and serve the vested interest of the United States.
World law and order depends on the power and initiative of America. There is no democratic nation able to assume the necessary role of world disciplinarian. The United Nations suffers from the disabilities of too many conflicting agendas and too many vetoes. With the fall of Communism and the balance of power provided by the Cold War, the alternative to American resolve is chaos. Worse wars than the war in Bosnia will ensue if ‘outlaw’ nations realize that there are no penalties for bad behavior.
The vested interest of America lies in a stable international economy. That economy depends on restraints being imposed on aggressive nationalism. A continuing war in Bosnia will bring the Russians and fundamentalist Muslims into the fray. It could unleash a broader war in the Balkans and destabilize fledgling democracies in the area. Anti-democratic militaristic states are more interested in arms rather than trade.
The “Treaty of Dayton” provided for the restoration of Croatia to its pre-war boundaries. It also provided for the preservation of Bosnia as a “unified” state with two parts, one Serbian and one Croatian-Muslim. It is not clear that this “new” Bosnia will be viable. In the end Bosnia may have to be divided between the Serbs and Croats, with the Muslim state becoming a protectorate of Croatia. A multiethnic Bosnia may be more illusion than reality. But, as a first step, the treaty is appropriate.
There is always the risk that Americans will be killed. But the alternative of non-intervention is worse. Educating the American people to this reality is the task of the Clinton administration.