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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Another Clash in Bosnia

By Christoph Bertram

Behind the latest frustrations of a Balkan conflict that American President Bill Clinton wrongly insists on calling a civil war, a clash is shaping up between the two international organizations that have been most closely involved in trying to deal with it: NATO and the United Nations. It is a clash between two different kinds of credibility, and because it absolutely cannot be resolved, the credibility of both -- primarily that of the Western alliance -- will suffer in the end.

In late September, I was an eye witness to that clash of credibilities on the spot. I sat in the office of the UN force commander in Zagreb, French General Bertrand de Lapresle, as reports came in from Sarajevo that French troops had been attacked by Bosnian Serb forces. The decision was taken to call in NATO aircraft to retaliate. But the general was adamant that this must on no account amount to a provocation: Great care would be taken not to push the Bosnian Serb leaders into a rash response that might jeopardize the whole UN mission.

So instead of choosing a target that would impress the aggressor, UN Special Representative Yasushi Akashi ordered the destruction of an old Serb tank in the exclusion zone around Sarajevo (from where it should have been removed long ago anyway), giving the Serbs 20 minutes' warning to make sure no one would be hurt.

It then took five NATO aircraft to kill a tank of little or no military value to the stranglers of Sarajevo.

Understandably, NATO leaders were furious. NATO military commanders rightly wondered whether it was justifiable to risk a complaint to UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. However, in late October, a NATO team went to UN headquarters in New York to work out the differences. And yet the gap between the objectives of NATO and those of the United Nations will not be bridged for the simple reason that it cannot be bridged. The two are plainly irreconcilable.

For the secretary general and his representatives in former Yugoslavia, the survival of their mission understandably has absolute priority. There are 40,000 blue-helmeted UN soldiers in the region, enough perhaps to escort humanitarian convoys and monitor occasional cease-fires, but too few to protect even one safe road to Sarajevo or to ensure their own fuel supply, much less provide safety for the Moslem enclaves, which a verbose Security Council declared "safe areas" long ago. The United Nations cannot enforce peace; it can at best help feed people and monitor agreements between the parties once they are ready for it. Herein lies its credibility. It does not lie in being able to impose solutions by force.

NATO, on the other hand, having lost its old mission of deterring an expansionist Soviet Union, is seeking a new mission as Europe's most effective security organization. After difficult and protracted debates among its 16 members, it agreed to lend its military clout to the United Nations.

NATO's credibility lies not only in being available to do whatever the United Nations demands but also in demonstrating its ability to force an adversary to do what he would not otherwise do.

Yet since NATO's members were not sure that they really wanted to expose their military to the conflict, the North Atlantic alliance built in a safety catch: It made intervention in Bosnia dependent not only on a general mandate by the UN Security Council but also on specific authorization by the secretary general, who in turn delegated the decision to his representative on the spot. In short, NATO has turned an organization that is inherently unwilling to use force into the guardian of its ability to use force.

It should have known better. As Giandomenico Picco, a former UN assistant secretary, wrote in the autumn edition of Foreign Affairs, "the institution of the secretary general is inherently inappropriate to manage the use of force. ... By involving itself in decisions on the use of force, the institution of the secretary general compromises the impartiality critical to its capacity as a negotiator."

To retain this impartiality will, therefore, always be the primary objective of the secretary's office. This has never been a secret. And it was probably on this basis only that NATO's 16 member states could agree to offer their forces to the United Nations. To ensure that their pledge to use military force to back up the United Nations would scarcely have to be honored, they delegated the decision to an "institution inherently inappropriate to manage the use of force." The recent protest by their defense ministers contains, therefore, a good deal of hypocrisy. NATO can huff and puff, but it still lacks the will to act decisively on its own.

The result is a loss of credibility for both NATO and the United Nations. If the United Nations in Bosnia calls on NATO aircraft to punish a transgressor, it will do so determined not to jeopardize its long-term task for NATO's short-term needs. Yet it will still risk its impartiality. And as long as NATO leaves the decision on when and how to intervene to the United Nations, it will be exposed -- again and again -- as a paper tiger.

The cost will be much higher for the Western alliance than for the United Nations. While the United Nations' credibility does not depend on the effective use of force, NATO's does. The nations of the West, afraid to muster a military response of their own to the Balkan challenge, tried to hide behind the United Nations. As a result, it is now the deep crisis of that alliance, not that of the world organization, that is being exposed.

Christoph Bertram is diplomatic correspondent for the German newspaper Die Zeit. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.