Balking at Intervention


"The emaciated bodies, the skeletal figures you see on television are hard to take for anyone who knows the Holocaust," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. Hier was talking about the scenes from the Serbian-run prison camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Bosnian and Croatian prisoners of war are allegedly being tortured and murdered.

The Wiesenthal Center has begun a letter-writing campaign demanding that President Bush use military force to stop Serbia's war of "ethnic cleansing." Not that Bush seems to need any encouragement. He has been pressing for a U.N. accord authorizing the use of "all means necessary" to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has also been rattling his sword, calling for military action against Serbia. Clinton and Bush each may be simply trying to convince voters that he is tougher than the other. Or the two men may truly want to do something to stop the bloodshed. After all, one cannot help being moved by television footage of the emaciated prisoners in the camps. But despite our feelings, America has no place in this conflict.

In the debate over intervention, Serbia has often been compared to Nazi Germany. But there is one vital difference. Germany was a superpower bent on continental domination. Serbia poses no such threat. Our hearts may be moved by the scenes from Serbian concentration camps, but we could find similar scenes in Africa and Asia. If we are to start righting wrongs everywhere, we must be prepared to spill American blood on every continent.

No vital American interest is at stake in the former Yugoslavia. Given that fact, the price we would pay to right things in Bosnia would be too high.

Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, has floated the idea of air strikes against Serbian positions in Bosnia or perhaps against Serbia itself. His argument is that the Serbs would not dare shoot at U.S. planes. The Serbs, however, have shown no reluctance to kill foreign journalists and relief workers. What happens if they shoot at and hit our planes? The public would probably demand that ground troops be sent in. When weighing the decision to intervene in Bosnia, we must assume that we may have to commit ground troops to the effort.

And we must also assume the United States would have to act essentially by itself. We cannot count on the European support we had in Iraq. Germany is full of old soldiers who remember Yugoslavia as their Vietnam, a place where they fought an invisible enemy in impossible terrain. Their soldiers suffered tremendous losses to guerrillas there in World War II. And the French and the British were, until the carnage became too much, supporting their old allies the Serbs. Moreover, these two countries are mired in economic problems of growing magnitudes. For these reasons, we cannot count on European support.

Should the United States, then, do nothing? No. We should seriously consider providing the Croats and Bosnians with the weapons they need to fight the Serbs. (As I write, this is the only aid they have requested.) And above all, the United States must use whatever diplomatic tools it has at its disposal to keep the Serbs from dragging their Slavic brothers the Russians into this conflict. It will be much easier to do this if we ourselves aren't directly involved.