The Abdication

by The Editors | February 28, 1994

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When blood is spilled, it is the responsibility of those who spill it, and the responsibility of those who could have stopped its spilling. For this reason, the carnage in the market of Sarajevo shamed also the White House, which should have been shamed long ago. Bill Clinton's dilatory, casuistic response to the great crime in the Balkans was not only shameful, it also marked a moment in the history of American foreign policy. This administration is transforming the only superpower in the world into the only abdicating superpower in the world. Poor Bosnia, it should have found itself in a trade war. Trade wars we fight. Wars of genocide we watch. 

But it is not even clear to the American government that a war of genocide is what it is watching. In Houston a few days after the Saturday slaughter, Clinton smugly and fatalistically observed that "until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen." It is true that Bosnian forces have recently retaken, and ethnically cleansed, some territory that Croatian forces had taken from them; but these ugly and foolish actions notwithstanding, it is not true that "those folks" are " killing each other." The Serbian (and Croatian) folks are attempting to exterminate the Bosnian folks. The war in the Balkans is not a civil war. It is a war of aggression, and its objective is genocide. So far 200,000 people have been killed in this war of genocide, and 2 million people have been made refugees

It is important to understand that genocide is not quantitatively measured. The analogy between the European excruciations of the 1940s and the European excruciations of the 1990s, an analogy that was useful to Clinton on the campaign trail, is an apposite one. The standard is not 6 million. Before millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and dissidents were murdered, thousands of them were murdered; and before thousands of them were murdered, hundreds of them were murdered; and before hundreds of them were murdered, tens of them were murdered; and it was, the whole time, with every bullet fired and every switch thrown, genocide. Indeed, it is possible to kill a single man or a single woman and still be guilty of genocide, if you kill him or her as the beginning, or the middle, or the end of the extinction of the group to which he or she belongs; if killing is also cleansing. Historically speaking, there is nothing dirtier than cleansing.

But Clinton does not speak about the Balkan war historically. He is, you might say, failing the 1940s test, stumbling his way into history as the president who didn't get it. Consider his terse statement on the day of the slaughter in Sarajevo. Suddenly our prolix president was unable to put our struggle into words. "I am outraged by this deliberate attack on the people of Sarajevo." But this deliberate attack was no different from all the other deliberate attacks, except that the sadists got lucky. "There can be no possible military justification for an attack against a marketplace where women, men and children of the city were pursuing their everyday lives." But there can be no possible military justification for any of the other attacks on the great and wretched city, which occur daily and so far have left 10,000 people dead. Indeed, there can be no possible military justification for the siege of Sarajevo, or the conquest of Bosnia. The president does not seem to grasp that the Saturday slaughter in Sarajevo was, for Sarajevo, a really quotidian catastrophe. It differed in degree, not in kind.

And then there was this grotesque sentence in the president's statement: " The United Nations should urgently investigate this incident and clearly identify those who are guilty." Identify those who are guilty! Maybe Representative Cooper did it. And again, the next day: "I have asked Ambassador Albright to urge the United Nations to accelerate the efforts to try to confirm responsibility for the strike in the market yesterday." Radovan Karadzic, the disloyal son of Sarajevo who is the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, is giggling. It was Karadzic who immediately announced that the Serbs were innocent, and that the Bosnians (or the Muslims, as he likes to call them, erasing Bosnia in language more thoroughly than in land) were killing and maiming themselves. It worked like a charm. In no time at all the air was filled with "crater analysis," which is the method by which the origins of distantly fired shells are identified. Since the mortar shell that turned the market into a charnel house struck the roof of a stall, which interfered with its hellish trajectory, it is impossible, according to the " crater analysts" of the United Nations, to confirm the location of the mortar that fired it. The little bomb fell, in the words of a British soldier, "in a range bracket that straddles both sides." The sadists, lucky again.

"When they kill me," the president of Bosnia said the day after the massacre, "they will probably say I committed suicide." With the authority, no doubt, of "bullet-hole analysis." This whole controversy is a Goebbels- like fake. Never mind that not a single "crater analysis" in the history of the siege of Sarajevo has established the guilt of anybody except the Serbians (see "Blaming The Victim," by Tom Gjelten, tnr, December 20, 1993). It plays right into the hands of The Big Lie (which, in the age of CNN, is The Extremely Big Lie) to regard the question of the responsibility for this massacre as a "debate" between the "view" that the Serbians did it and the " view" that the Bosnians did it. But this is how the president of the United States is regarding it, in his spirit of inclusion.

At this writing, the response of the American government to the Saturday slaughter is approximately this: we are threatening an end to threats. This will stand as one of the representative formulations of Clintonism, and this will not ruin any Serbian gunner's day. The signals from the White House are confusing, and they are the measure of a confusion that is deeper than diplomatic. Some "senior officials" tell The New York Times that nato will " give the Bosnian Serbs a week to lift the siege of Sarajevo or face air strikes by allied planes on their artillery positions in the mountains," even as other senior officials warn other reporters not to play the possibility of retaliation too big. The threat of strikes--this time we really mean it!-- might temporarily restrain the Serbian onslaught, and it appears already to have resulted in a cease-fire--this time they really mean it!--and a withdrawal of the "siege guns" around Sarajevo; but even air strikes, if limited to the area around Sarajevo and understood as a single response to a single massacre, will not affect the balance of power almost at all; and nothing has been vouchsafed about the prompt lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia. We admire the people of Sarajevo, of course, for their stoicism.

"The ultimate answer to all this killing," the president said, "is for the three parties to reach an agreement that they can live with and honor." This marks a shift in our dodge. In the weeks before the massacre, the administration was, to put it truthfully, in favor of war. The American government was opposed to a peace agreement, and it was angry at the French government for demanding one. A peace agreement, the Americans said, will make the Bosnians themselves complicitous in the conquest of Bosnia. But the administration was itself complicitous in that conquest; and so its skepticism about a settlement was just another bout of bad faith. (In the matter of Bosnia, in the course of two administrations, Washington has been bad faith city.) For a peace settlement will require an international force to police it; and an international force will require the participation of American troops; and the participation of American troops will require a political risk on the part of the president; and there the attraction of peace ended, until last week.

For Bosnia, peace means partition. And partition, too, has its requirements. The president seems willing to meet the requirements of peace, but not the requirements of partition. Unless all the parties to the partition have the power to defend themselves, for example, the partition will not be a peace, it will be a pause in a war. You cannot be for peace and against the arming of Bosnia. It is a measure of the moral seriousness of the Bosnians that they have asked only to fight their own battle. They do not want foreign troops with guns, they want foreign guns without troops. There are reports that the Bosnians are receiving weapons from the Saudis and the Iranians (and from profiteering Serbians, too; an archipelago of honor, is the former Yugoslavia) , and this offends the sensibilities of some Westerners. The Bosnians are to be forgiven, however, if their survival is more vivid to them than our sensibilities. In any case, the United States can provide for their survival and our sensibilities by lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia. "Lift" used to be considered a step toward war. The time has come to consider "lift" more properly as a step toward peace.

And partition has another requirement, which is a demonstration of the West's deadly earnestness about it. By deadly, we mean deadly. There is no reason to believe that Slobodan Milosevic, the tacky, tribe-intoxicated thug who rules Serbia, will be dissuaded from his grisly advance by anything other than an experience of force. Air strikes, and only air strikes, will make the point. Unless the Serbian positions around Sarajevo are struck, and the United States makes it clear to the butcher in Belgrade that he must lift the siege of Sarajevo or have a taste of Sarajevo himself, we may expect the " strangulation" of Sarajevo to continue, and the metaphysical speculation in Western capitals about the meaning of "strangulation" to continue, until Sarajevo falls.

There have been a number of objections to air strikes, and to military action more generally. First, there is the objection that it is a difficult business. We do not doubt it; but we note that this administration is picky about difficulty. We do not see the president daunted by the complexity of deficit reduction or regional health alliances. Indeed, he basks in the complexity. And we understand why: complexity has a way of being diluted by urgency. Second, there is the objection that military action is, as Billie Holiday used to warn, all or nothing at all. Air strikes, it is said, will inexorably lead to the introduction of ground troops. This is silly. The projection of military power, unless it is hobbled in its conception by the utopia of Desert Storm or the dystopia of Vietnam, should be guided by the principle of calibration. Where there is intelligence, there are no slippery slopes. We have at our disposal a variety of instruments of force that may be matched to a variety of objectives of strategy. It is demagoguery to assert that we cannot make the cost of the siege of Sarajevo unacceptable to Serbia except at a cost unacceptable to us.

Third, there is the objection that it may not work. It may not. But the skeptics will have to do better than isolationism or Murphy's Law. After all, there is empirical evidence to the contrary. A little pin-striped noise was all it took to push Serbian guns out of their diabolical "range bracket." We know that Milosevic is not a brave man. He has already caviled at the prospect of American resistance, until the president dispelled the prospect. And Belgrade is not Baghdad; there is an opposition to its jingoist ruler, and a desire not to become the pariah of the post-communist West. And the Serbian military is only the Serbian military. And the Serbians have something to lose, which is their foully gotten gain in Bosnia. There is something comic about all the talking heads on television who sagely advise that the instability in the Balkans is the shape of things to come and then demand guarantees. There are no guarantees; but from this rudimentary fact about human affairs, evil should not be allowed to draw encouragement.

This is not all. The United States will not act against the genocide in Bosnia unless it acts autonomously. It is one of Clinton's contributions to American foreign policy, however, to have stripped it of its autonomy. The difference between multilateralism Bush-style and multilateralism Clinton- style has not been sufficiently observed. For Bush, it was necessary for the United States to act in concert with other nations, in the setting of the United Nations, but as first among equals. For Clinton, it is necessary for the United States to act in concert with other nations, in the setting of the United Nations, but as one among equals. There is Rwanda, there is Malaysia, there is America. Thus we had action against Iraq and we have inaction against Serbia. When in Brussels a few weeks ago he was asked, he thought rudely, about nato assistance to Sarajevo, the president said that "we have done everything the United Nations has asked us to do." This was an abdication. And so it was a little delicious when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has not exactly covered himself in Balkan glory, informed nato in the wake of the Saturday slaughter that the decision to strike was theirs to make.

But the administration did not find an opportunity in the secretary- general's change of heart, since it was not looking for an opportunity. Boutros-Ghali robbed American policy of its United Nations cover and delivered it to its European cover. It is commonly said that Bosnia is a European problem, and that the Europeans should do something about it. It is, and they won't. Atlanticism, too, is just an alibi. Last week Lawrence Eagleburger, who aided and abetted the Serbian aggression, opined ruefully on television that "there has to be a time when the Europeans no longer hide behind our skirts." But this is backwards: we are hiding behind the Europeans' skirts. Clinton has abjured America's primacy in nato just as surely as he has abjured America's primacy at the United Nations. In doing so, he has displayed a terrible misunderstanding of the alliance and its history. And so it was a little delicious when the foreign ministers of France, Holland and Belgium surprised the White House by calling for the use of force to end the siege of Sarajevo.

The disgusting events in southern Europe are a challenge to American interests and American values. Anarchy is an affront to our interests and genocide is an affront to our values. And the American interests that are implicated by the Serbian war are not only regional, they are also global. The audience for Bill Clinton's prevarications includes Kim Il Sung and Saddam Hussein and Raoul Cedras and Mohamed Farah Aideed and a host of petty fascists in fledgling states who have been wondering about their freedom of action. And what he is telling them all is: act freely, we are busy with ourselves. Clinton does not see that he is making a more recalcitrant world.

The torture of Sarajevo also puts a special pressure on America. For there is a profound sense in which the Sarajevan experiment resembles the American experiment. Sarajevo is a tolerant, secular, multiethnic, multicultural city. For Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians, for Muslims, Christians and Jews, the city of Sarajevo was an oasis of decency, a rare and beautiful place where the traditions collided peacefully. There was a time, in the days before his presidency, when Clinton appeared to apprehend the relevance of the Bosnian fate: "Lord of Mercy," he told reporters, "there's 150 different racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County... I know that ethnic divisions are one of the strongest impulses in all of society all over the world, but we've got to take a stand against it." The punishment of Sarajevo is the punishment of an American ideal. For Americans in particular, it should be painful to behold.

But this pain is one pain the president fails to feel. Instead the White House shows indifference, and divagation, and timidity, and a sudden anxiety that the terrible pictures on television are becoming a political embarrassment. To be sure, there is outrage. "I know I speak for all Americans," the president said on the day of the massacre in the market, "in expressing our revulsion and anger at this cowardly act." But there is something a little cozy about this outrage. Indeed, we must be careful, when we come to consider the destruction of Bosnia, not to express what we warmly call outrage, if outrage is an expression of surprise. The moral sense can no longer survive if it is surprisable. The will to resist evil must be as grim and as disabused and as perdurable as the will to commit evil. Sarajevo is not an occasion for sentiment. It is an occasion for action. But we have a president who prefers feeling deeply to acting strongly. He is not a bad man. He merely makes goodness look like weakness. Historians will deal harshly with him for the horrors that he has already countenanced. If only he feared historians as much as he fears pollsters.

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