The Common Good
January-February 1996

Into Bosnia

by Jim Rice | January-February 1996

Mixed motives and good fruit.

As the warring parties in the former Yugoslavia emerged from their peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, it was hard not to be hopeful that the bloodshed in Bosnia might finally be grinding to a halt. But along with the accord came a dilemma for those committed to biblical nonviolence.

Could we-should we-in good conscience support the massive infusion of NATO troops? Should we see this as an honest-to-goodness "peacekeeping" mission, or was it merely the latest example of the U.S. military's propensity for sticking its nose into other people's business, usually to their great harm? And even if it didn't fit our definition of nonviolent intervention, was it the best we could hope for in the circumstances?

But since Dayton, the language used by those making the case for intervention has shifted substantially. The humanitarian intent-to stop the slaughter-is still mentioned, but now it's almost an afterthought. The primary mission, judging by the rhetoric issued by the White House and its supporters, is to preserve and protect the "credibility" of the president and of NATO.

Rallying 'round the flag, the commander in chief, or the nation's military alignments are precisely the worst reasons to support such an intervention. For Christians, in fact, such arguments are at best irrelevant, and could even be seen as reasons to oppose the action. Some even suspect the humanitarian motives altogether, and see this latest military adventure as merely an attempt to provide justification for the continuation of NATO and for massive Pentagon budgets-both remnants of the Cold War era that are becoming increasingly hard to justify.

EVEN ADMITTING that the motives behind the operation are at best mixed, it's hard to deny that a venture with a goal of enforcing a peace treaty is morally preferable to war, the goal of which is to destroy and vanquish the enemy. But even so, does that make the Bosnian intervention right?

It's an important question, not so much for the purpose of playing Monday-morning armchair moralist, but rather because we're likely to face these issues again and again. Bosnia is the shape of things to come as the U.S. empire runs its course in the years ahead.

And empire, of course, is the deeper point here. Nicholas von Hoffman, writing in The Washington Post, argues convincingly that as long as the United States is in the empire business, it's going to have to engage in a series of skirmishes, small wars, and "peacekeeping" actions to police the domain. (Von Hoffman doesn't mention the more fundamental weapons used to keep things in control-the World Bank and IMF, NAFTA and GATT, and other multinational economic institutions.) Putting American troops in the Balkans, in this view, is simply the latest payment of the cost of running the (not so) new world order. Thus understood, the choice is clear: Continue to engage in periodic military adventures in various corners of the globe, or renounce the prerogatives of empire.

A moral assessment of the Balkan incursion has less to do with a simple yes or no to intervention than it has to do with addressing root causes and developing nonviolent alternatives. It's easy to argue for massive U.S.-led military occupation of Bosnia when no apparent viable alternatives exist; it's much more difficult to begin to build those alternatives.

For example, it is universally acknowledged that the United Nations was inadequate to the task of enforcing the peace accords, and NATO eagerly stepped into the breach. A genuine global commitment to build a potent U.N. peacekeeping force would require nations-particularly the United States-to give up the ability to run the international show unilaterally. And if U.N. forces were in fact empowered to serve as the world's guarantor of peace and security-an international police force-NATO's obsolescence would become painfully obvious. Instead, the Bosnian intervention will stand as justification for the anachronistic military alliance for years to come.

The central contradiction on which the mission into Bosnia is based is that the task of keeping the peace has been placed in the hands of people trained and armed in the arts of war. While we are mindful that only a good tree can produce good fruit, for the sake of the war-weary people of the region our prayer is that a just and lasting peace finally replaces the bloodshed.

And in the long term, it is the responsibility of peacemakers not just to resist war, but to be about the business of creating, developing, and strengthening the things that make for peace so that in the future there are viable alternatives to military intervention. In the unpredictable world of the 21st century, they're going to be needed more than ever.

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