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History won't soon forget our betrayal of ex-Yugoslavia.

Lord David Owen and President Clinton have begun to prepare Western public opinion for the dismemberment of the multiethnic Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Out of its ruins are to rise three new, ethnically pure entities: one to go to Greater Serbia, one destined for Greater Croatia, and one a Muslim ministate consisting of a West Bank in the center of the country and a Gaza Strip in the northwest corner around Bihac.

Now that unconditional surrender to violent nationalism in Bosnia appears decided, the U.S. government and news media are rushing to put the best face on things. We are hearing a number of revisionist arguments to rationalize our inaction: that there is no moral difference between the Bosnian government and the rebels; that this sort of savagery is endemic in the Balkans and cannot be comprehended, much less controlled, by outsiders, and that the United States has no national interest at stake in Bosnia, anyway. None of these claims bears up under scrutiny.

First, consider the putative "moral equivalence" of the Bosnian government and the rebels. It is true that all three of the main confessional communities in Bosnia, including the Muslim community, contain extremist elements, and that the latter have also been responsible for some atrocities.

However, the Bosnian government army has always been, and still is, the only party to the conflict that is multi-ethnic in composition and that is fighting for a tolerant, liberal state in which all communities can continue to live in their ancestral homes, side by side with one another, in security and equality.

To refuse to distinguish morally between the government and the rebels is to betray our own values. What is worse, it is an insult to the memory of the many Serbs and Croats who have died defending the ideal of a civilized Bosnia belonging to all its people.

Second, let us bury the hateful and racist myth that "those people" have been killing each other for centuries, that this sort of intolerance and savagery is "in their blood." The fact is that for most of the past 500 years, all three communities have been living tightly intermingled lives in peace.

The only precedent for what is happening today was the systematic killing of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies during World War II by the Nazi-allied Croatian Ustasha organization. Surely, we have no difficulty discerning which side we should have taken in 1943. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to tell which side to support in 1993?

The current climate of fear and hatred in Bosnia is the artificial creation of a handful of Serbian ideologues and warlords whose goal from the beginning has been the creation of a Greater Serbia in which all non-Serbs, if any are left, are completely subjugated.

To be sure, there are chauvinists among the other two groups who would do the same if they could -- just as there are Western-style liberals among all three groups -- but it is the Serbian ultranationalists who made the conscious decision to destroy the multiethnic state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and who had the military power in their hands to do so. That is to say, it is the Serbian "Tigers" and "White Eagles" who actually killed Bosnia; the Croatian jackals are merely feeding off the corpse.

Finally, let us examine the proposition that the war in Bosnia, although horrible, in no way threatens the U.S. national interest. It is of course true that "Milosevic is no Hitler"; obviously, his ambitions do not extend beyond the borders of ex-Yugoslavia. He is no Saddam Hussein, either, since there is no oil in Bosnia. However, these cliches fundamentally misrepresent the nature of the real U.S. interest in Bosnia.

The correct analogy for the Bosnian conflict is neither the Gulf War nor Vietnam -- rather, it is the Spanish Civil War. As in Bosnia in 1992, a newly established liberal democracy emerged in Spain in 1936, only to be immediately attacked by the army of the old regime in the name of a reactionary, quasi-messianic ideology. Then as now, the outside world imposed an arms embargo, locking in place the rebels' overwhelming military advantage.

Just as the embargo drove the Spanish government into the arms of the Soviet Union then, so it is driving the Bosnian government into the arms of Iran today. Finally, then as now, the Western leaders supported the beleaguered government with their words, but gave de facto support to the rebels by their actions.

What Milosevic (working through his proxy Karadzic) really is, then is a Franco. And just as the West lived to regret not opposing Franco in Spain, so will we surely live to regret not opposing Milosevic, Karadzic and company in Bosnia.

Moral considerations aside, it is in the U.S. national interest to oppose violent nationalism in the Balkans for the simple reason that it is the chief ideological opponent of Western liberal democracy in the world today. Furthermore, fascism (not to put too fine a point on it) is more dangerous to us as an ideology than communism ever was.

The Soviet Union was an external threat to us simply by virtue of its status as a competing superpower. However, at no time did the Soviet Union's ideology -- communism -- ever represent a genuine internal threat to U.S. national security. Fascism is a real temptation, a live option, for the liberal democracies in a way that communism never was. Anyone who doubts this should recall the popular following enjoyed by the overtly fascist Fr. Coughlin in the 1930s, and then ponder the Ross Perot phenomenon today.

Former U.N. refugees representative in Bosnia Jose-Maria Mendiluce recently made this point eloquently, according to newspaper reports: "Here you see how easy it is for cynical leaders to stir up hatred by spreading lies in the media and fomenting provocations on the ground. The rest of Europe is not immune to this kind of manipulation. It could happen in Britain or France or Germany or Spain." Or, he might have added, in the United States.

It is already too late for the West to avoid the condemnation of history for the shortsightedness and cowardice of our policy toward Bosnia. But if we have decided to abandon Bosnia to its fate, let us at least have the decency to call a spade a spade. For us to attempt to justify ourselves with the half-truths and outright lies of the ethnic-cleansers and mass-murderers only compounds our shame.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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