Bosnia, the United States, and the Just War Tradition


There is an inherent asymmetry between the moral status of nations at war and their nonbelligerent neighbors. Warring states can neither avoid conflict nor worry about taking sides, while third parties typically do both. If the conflict is sufficiently contained and far away, it may be relatively easy to let loose a spate of hand-wringing and disapprobation, and be done with it. To many, both at home and abroad, United States policy on the Yugoslav wars has appeared to be just this. For not a few in this country that is just what it should be. In conversation and in the press it has been common, these last three years, to hear warnings against foreign quagmires, reminders of Vietnam, and general puzzlement as to why the United States should have any interest in risking American lives and resources on a small country in a contentious part of the world that lacks even the redeming political benefit of oil.

The downside, of course, is that the petty invasion or murky civil war that we ignore today may become tomorrow's sinkhole, opening wide to receive our blood and resources. Vietnam comes rather obviously to mind. Even when a third party can successfully avoid entanglement in its neighbors' conflicts there may be compelling reasons to intervene, be they geopolitical, humanitarian, or both. Bangladesh, Biafra, Cambodia, Somalia: here the list is too depressing to dwell on. In any event, the justification for intervention or indifference says much about the self-image of a state and the moral identity of its citizens. This essay reflects on two approaches to U.S. foreign policy, with an eye to a critical analysis of American options for action in the conflict over Bosnia.

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Copyright © 1996 Routledge. This chapter first appeared in Religion and Justice in the War over Bosnia.

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