Bosnia Won't Be Another Vietnam

Posted: December 07, 1995

Critics of President Clinton's plan to deploy U.S. troops in Bosnia as part of the NATO peacekeeping force have been quick to compare the operation to the failed U.S. intervention in South Vietnam. Bosnia is said by these critics to constitute a potential "quagmire" for NATO forces, much as Vietnam proved a deadly trap for U.S. soldiers some 25 years ago. But Bosnia is not Vietnam - not morally and not militarily. Only by rejecting this false analogy can we judge the Bosnia mission on its own merits.

Any commitment of U.S. forces in a civil conflict abroad will, of course, entail some echoes of Vietnam, if only in the sense that American soldiers will be deployed in unfamiliar and (to some degree) unfriendly territory. But the differences in Bosnia outweigh the similarities.

Most important, U.S. forces will be deployed in Bosnia as peacemakers, not as war-makers. The 550,000 American soldiers sent to Vietnam were given the unenviable task of defeating a powerful and well-entrenched enemy - one that had already defeated a major western power, France.

The soldiers sent to Bosnia, however, have no enemies to subdue; rather, their task is to separate two armies that already have been ravaged by four years of war and have largely lost their appetite for combat. No doubt there will be some expressions of anger and resentment from those who oppose some aspect of the Dayton peace accord - but this is very different from facing a well-equipped army with every intention of destroying you.

Equally significant, the United States will enjoy the moral high ground in Bosnia for its role in arranging and keeping the peace. In a land that has witnessed terrible atrocities - approximating, in some instances, those committed by the Nazis during World War II - we bring hope of safety and justice. This is quite unlike Vietnam, where the United States was allied with a corrupt and vicious dictatorship that discredited every move we made. True, many of the Americans who fought in Vietnam believed that they were doing so for honorable reasons, but the fact that we were associated with an illegitimate regime robbed our mission of whatever moral claim it might have enjoyed, and turned the world against us.

In Bosnia, by comparison, the world is on our side. Some 25 nations, including all of the NATO powers and Russia, will join the United States in supplying troops to the joint "implementation force." Many others are assisting in relief and rehabilitation efforts. And most of the people in the area are jubilant at the prospect of a genuine respite from the pain and perils of war.

The greatest risk to U.S. soldiers will come, of course, from "rogue" elements in the various ethnic militias (especially among the Serbs) who reject the proposed peace agreement. Such elements, if they materialize, will pose a troublesome threat of ambush and sniping.

But these militias are not the Viet Cong - a superbly trained and disciplined force that had endured decades of hardship and combat. Most of the killing in Bosnia has been performed by part-time soldiers who are most aggressive when shooting at unarmed civilians and helpless prisoners. Unlike the Viet Cong, they are not likely to seek a fight with well-armed U.S. combatants.

The one big worry facing U.S. commanders is that the peace accord will unravel and that the various parties will resume fighting - with U.S. troops caught in the middle. This is a genuine risk, and one that Pentagon strategists will have to plan for. But we know what their responsibility will be in this case: to get U.S. troops out as fast as possible. Compare this to

Vietnam, where one president after another refused to recall American troops even when it was clear that our intervention had failed.

For these reasons, Vietnam does not represent a valid analogy for Bosnia. This having been said, there are still good reasons for questioning the proposed NATO operation. Americans have a right to know if the Dayton accords constitute a fair and durable basis for peace, and if the U.S. mission can be accomplished safely and in a reasonable period.

Assuming that the president can answer these questions satisfactorily - and I believe that he has to work harder at this - we should view the Bosnia mission as a genuine contribution to world peace. The people of that tortured land have suffered enormously over the past four years; now, with a peace agreement in hand and NATO forces on the way, they can be free of the nightmare of war.

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