'A Dog In That Fight'?

When Hitler sent ribbentrop to Moscow in August 1939 to sign the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, he sent along his personal photographer with instructions to obtain close-ups of Stalin's ear lobes. Hitler wondered whether Stalin had Jewish blood and wanted to see if his ear lobes were "ingrown and Jewish, or separate and Aryan." This historical nugget (from Alan Bullock's "Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives") is offered at this juncture in America's debate about Bosnia, as a reminder of a quality European politics has sometimes had in this century. Some American policymakers need to be reminded.

When Serbians took hostages from U.N. personnel in Bosnia and chained them to military targets as human shields, Warren Christopher was puzzled: "It's really not part of any reasonable struggle that might be going on there." While the Secretary of State, a sweet man sadly miscast, searches for reasonableness amid the Balkan rubble, there are "peacekeepers" where there is no peace to be kept and "safe Zones" where slaughter is random. UNProFor (the U.N. Protection Force) is akin to the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. The U.N. force isn't forceful, so it needs more protection than it offers.

This war has been misdescribed as Europe's first civil war since that in Greece in the 1940s and the most portentous civil war since republicans fought fascists in Spain in the 1930s. Actually, this war now churning into its fourth summer is a war of Serbian aggression. It has been a war of aggression since 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as a sovereign state, and since Bosnia became a member of the United Nations. Perhaps Bosnia's inconvenient existence is unfortunate, and perhaps Bosnia will yet be sundered by partition. But it is a state and that is why Pat Moynihan, carrying Woodrow Wilson's torch for international law and collective security, says of Bosnia, "Everything is at stake here, if principle is everything." Says Moynihan, if neither NATO nor the United Nations can summon the will to cope with Serbia, "what have we gone through the 20th century for?" We went through it because we had no choice, but you know what he means: A century that began, in effect, at the Somme and went downhill from there to Ausehwitz is ending with a wired world watching rape camps used in the service of "ethnic cleansing." All this 80 minutes by air from Rome.

Europe's first war between nations since 1945 illustrates an astounding fact: In this century of European fighting faiths--communism, fascism, socialism, pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism and more--the one hardest to extinguish turns out to be the variant of fascism fueling the drive for Greater Serbia. Like pure fascism it asserts the primacy of the primordial and the goal of perfect national unity achieved by the expulsion or murder of "unassimilables." This explains the violent Serbian loathing of Sarajevo, where Christians and Muslims have peacefully coexisted. Hitler and Mussolini thought they were defending old Europe against the modern menace of Bolshevism. The Serbs think this is the year 782 and they are with Charles Martel saving Christian Europe by stopping the Moslem advance at Tours. Or it is 1529 and they are stopping Suleiman at the gates of Vienna. The Ottoman Empire is long gone, but the gunners in the hills surrounding Sarajevo refer to their targets--civilians dashing from doorway to doorway--as Turks.

Serbia is a raw reassertion of pre-modernity, the idea that uniform ethnicity and shared myths are essential to a political community. This war, which mocks the notion that Europe has become a supranational society, began in 1992, the year the Maastrieht Treaty was signed, supposedly to make "Europe" a truly political as well as geographical expression. The United Nations, embodiment of the modern aspiration of a morality of nations, has been no match for Serbia. And the U.N.'s arms embargo against both sides--high-minded, scrupulous neutrality between Serbian slaughterers and their victims--has been a policy of gross immorality.

The embargo was imposed in 1991 against the whole of disintegrating Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia disappeared the embargo was continued. That favored Serbia, which had ample weapons from the former Yugoslav army and had a large armaments industry. Now the embargo violates the U.N. Charter, which acknowledges every nation's "inherent" right of self-defense. President Bush defended the embargo with a flippancy about the problem in the Balkans not being an insufficiency of weapons. Today defenders of the embargo say it economizes violence because lifting it would prolong the fighting. This argument is especially unpleasant when used by the British, who today might be obeying German traffic laws if Lend-Lease had not prolonged the fighting.

So far the NATO nations have insufficient political will to impose a solution or use force to help restore the integrity of Bosnia. The Serbs are what the NATO nations are not: serious. The NATO nations want to end the game, the Serbs want to win it. Other people with ancient animosities and modern weapons are watching. It probably is not just coincidental that Russian revanchism became bold regarding Chechnya as the NATO nations became, through the embargo, collaborators with Serbian irredentism. If the irredentism goes unopposed when the UNProFor charade ends, the irredentism will become, even more than it already is, genocidal.

Secretary of State James Baker famously said of the Balkan conflict, "We don't have a dog in that fight." But those in the fight are not dogs and by the embargo we have helped make the fight grotesquely unfair. What would be the consequences on our national self-respect -- our nation's soul -- of a preventable Serbian victory followed by "cleansing" massacres? Bosnian Serbs have seized 70 percent of Bosnia but they are not a mighty military force and will become even less so if the Serbian government in Belgrade can be pressured into leaving Bosnia's separatist Serbs isolated in combat with a Bosnian army equipped at last with tanks and artillery. The Serbs fighting in Bosnia are bullies led by war criminals collaborating with a dictator. If we don't have an interest in this fight, what are we?