The Magazine

WHY WE ARE IN BOSNIA

Dec 11, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 13 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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TO MY OWN SURPRISE -- maybe amazement would be a better word -- I find myself siding with Bill Clinton on the issue of sending American troops to Bosnia, and hoping against all odds that my fellow conservatives in general and the Republican party in particular will wind up doing the same. For it is hard to imagine how the United States can now renege on the admittedly flawed deal the Clinton administration brokered in Dayton without doing grave damage to its power and to its honor. And the same can be said of the Republican party if it persists in the kind of peevish obstructionism that (with the major exception of Bob Dole) has so far largely marked its response to the Dayton accords.


These are words, God knows, I never expected I would write. Ever since the war in Bosnia broke out, I have opposed the introduction of American ground forces as unnecessary and undesirable, supporting instead the kind of intervention advocated at the outset most clearly and forcefully by Margaret Thatcher.


The Thatcher position called for a lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia and the use of American air power to make sure that the military supplies the Bosnians needed would get through. The main point was to give the Bosnians what they were pleading for: a fighting chance to defend themselves against a Serbian aggression involving atrocities that bordered on outright genocide. To this day I have yet to hear a convincing argument against the Thatcher position.


Those who expressed concern that it would lead us into a "quagmire" struck me as at best silly and at worst dishonest. After all, if our policy had been to g ive the Bosnians a chance to defend themselves, we would have been under no mor al obligation to take over the fighting on the ground if they turned out to be incapable of doing the job on their'own even when properly armed. Nor was there any good reason to suppose that our credibility would have suffered from the failure of an honorable policy whose limits had been clearly demarcated in advance.


Another argument against the Thatcher position was that it would only prolong the war. But if the Bosnians had the will and the courage to fight, and were asking only that their hands be untied, by what right did anyone else decide that they were better off giving in? In addition to being morally presumptuous, this craven counsel was accompanied by the intellectually presumptuous assumption that the Bosnians faced inevitable defeat no matter what.


The third argument against the Thatcher position-that our NATO allies opposed it and that it would put the peacekeeping troops they had already sent into Bosnia at risk -- was more serious. But if the United States had been determined to follow the Thatcher line, arrangements could surely have been worked out to make its implementation possible.


Be all that as it may, the Thatcher position in its original form has now been rendered academic by the Dayton accords, and like many who supported it, I am sorely tempted to turn away in disgust. But I resist the temptation by telling myself that perhaps these accords are better than they look. Perhaps they do not quite represent the triumph of those who all along wanted the Bosnians to surrender. Perhaps, if properly implemented, they can even form the basis of a new balance of power and therefore of a settlement that will last.


I am also tempted to turn away in disgust from the decision to send 20,000 American soldiers into Bosnia as part of a peacekeeping force. Unhappy as I was about the idea of using America ground troops to fight in Bosnia, ! am equally if not more unhappy about using them, in Bosnia or anywhere else, to do anything other than fight. Nevertheless, in politics -- as the old adage has it -- one begins from where one is; and I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that from where we are now, the right course is to support Clinton on this issue.


Obviously this is not how many (most?) of my fellow conservatives see it. Commentators like Frank Gaffney and Thomas Sowell are strongly against sending American troops; of the nine Republicans running for president, seven have come out in no uncertain terms against the president; and the young conservatives in Congress seem to be almost unanimous in their opposition. By contrast, some two-thirds of the Democrats in Congress, and many liberal columnists and editorialists, are lining up behind the president.


Bosnia, then, continues to have a weird effect on political alignments here in America. First the Thatcher position made strange bedfellows of old Cold War hawks like myself and old liberal doves like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. And now the Dayton accords are becoming the occasion for a wholly unexpected reversal of roles between Democrats and Republicans on the use of American power.