In Bosnia, patience

By Richard Holbrooke
Sunday, September 28, 1997

"The fulfillment of America's ideals," Henry Kissinger wrote in his book "Diplomacy," "will have to be sought in the patient accumulation of partial successes." But his impatient column, "Limits to What the U.S. Can Do in Bosnia" {op-ed, Sept. 22}, minimizes what already has been achieved in Bosnia and advocates a course of action that could not only result in a possible resumption of hostilities but also undermine America's commitment to European security just on the eve of the event he has so eloquently supported: the enlargement of NATO.

One of the most consistent themes in Dr. Kissinger's career has been the need for America to remain engaged in Europe. At the end of the Cold War, he opposed calls to withdraw from the field of European security, argued that NATO should remain an indispensable instrument of American policy and called for its enlargement -- all views with which the Clinton administration agrees.

Yet, without acknowledging the significant achievements of the American-led peacekeeping effort in Bosnia, he now advocates a series of steps that would essentially dismantle the effort just when it is showing significant signs of progress, and create a massive new problem between the United States and its European allies. To follow his views to their logical conclusion would result in the failure of our efforts after a substantial investment and a qualified success, for no apparent reason. We can well afford the costs, and there have been no U.S. or NATO fatalities from hostile action in 21 months -- an astonishing record and a tribute to the respect in which NATO is held by all parties in Bosnia. In fact, our partnership with our European allies in Bosnia has defined our post-Cold War American security commitment to Europe.

For this reason, every European leader who met with senior American officials in New York during the U.N. General Assembly meeting last week urged the United States not to proceed with a withdrawal from Bosnia in June 1998, and they further stated that if we leave, they will be forced to do the same. This is not simply a request for a few logistics or headquarters troops: The Europeans want continued American military leadership, and a continued commitment of American combat troops, although at a lower level. They are right. If we pull out on an arbitrary deadline -- which should not be confused with an "exit strategy" -- the situation in Bosnia will become chaotic, eroding the achievements so far. The very scenario that Dr. Kissinger has so long opposed and feared would occur -- a Europe adrift without American involvement, and an America, in his words, which "could turn, psychologically as well as geographically, into an island off the shores of Europe."

A continued U.S.-led military presence in Bosnia can be sustained, and at a progressively lower cost to the United States. But its role is not simply, as Dr. Kissinger suggests, "to preserve the cease-fire for a reasonable period." Nor is it accurate to state that "NATO patrols only the line between the so-called Federation and the Serb part of Bosnia." The NATO-led forces, including Russians -- a historic and unprecedented example of post-Cold War cooperation -- are stationed throughout Bosnia and carry out a wide range of functions. Furthermore, the war surely was not "triggered by the West's misconceived attempt to experiment with a multi-ethnic society." If anything, it was the West's failure to take a strong collective stand against the early acts of Serb aggression that allowed the wars of Yugoslavia to spiral out of control.

One can legitimately ask what our long-term goals are, how long we must fulfill such a role and whether it is worth the cost and risk. These important questions have been answered many times by administration spokespeople, including national security adviser Sandy Berger in a major speech last week. Those who advocate partition on the grounds it would get us out faster would, in fact, sanction Serb aggression. An imposed or involuntary partition would not lead to stability. A resumption of fighting would ultimately be more likely, given the fact that, despite the massive relocation and ethnic cleansing of the recent past, the three ethnic communities still must live and work together in overlapping areas. Most people in the region appear ready to do this: The Dayton arrangements have widespread popular support, according to several public opinion polls. Why surrender, therefore, to the worst elements in Bosnian society, those that preach and practice ethnic hatred, using techniques Goebbels would have admired?

The clash of civilizations can be much overstated, and leads to a historical pessimism that condemns us to become history's prisoners instead of its students. The United States should not sacrifice its dual role as a central part of the European security system and a leading advocate of universal human values. To do so could set off another chain reaction of tragedy in Southeast Europe at a moment when a combination of American leadership and commitment has already ended a war and brought a measure of hope to the troubled region -- with no loss of lives and at an acceptable cost.

The writer was the chief designer of the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia.

© 1997 The Washington Post Company