U.S. must take calculated risks for peace in the Balkans

Calculated risks are necessary in Bosnia as they are in the Middle East.

Jews have a special reason to be disturbed by some politicians' recent comments on sending troops to Bosnia. If Franklin Roosevelt had held similar sentiments, all of Europe, including England, would today be speaking German with a Nazi accent.

One such comment runs along these lines: "Polls show that the American people are opposed to sending troops to Bosnia, and therefore we should not do so."

Similarly, Congress in the late 1930s cited isolationist American public opinion in passing stringent neutrality laws which, in effect, left England and Europe almost helpless against the Nazi juggernaut. Despite the noninterventionist public opinion, Roosevelt violated the neutrality act with an executive order that sent 50 unmanned destroyers to a desperate England.

The founding fathers did not expect that the American republic would be run by popular referenda but by representatives — individuals chosen for their general values, who in making decisions would exercise their best judgment. Under Roosevelt's leadership, the American people gradually came around, the neutrality acts were repealed and England was saved.

The abdication of leadership in favor of public-opinion polls is one of the scourges of this nation today. Time after time, the American people have changed their opinion once their leaders made clear all the possible consequences — that is, when leaders could in fact be found.

There is another abomination in the current debate: Some say that, moral values aside, the American "self-interest" in the Bosnian matter is unproved. Moral values aside? Moses did not come down from Mount Sinai saying, "Here, folks, are some good rules to follow as long as they don't get in the way of your self-interest." Nor was he just being wide-eyed and preachy.

Bosnia is an example of the fact that promoting moral values such as human rights and nongenocide is hard-headedlygood for America's self-interest. The less often such values are breached out there in the world, the safer America will be — and, coincidentally, so will Jews everywhere.

That is not some simple-minded cliché from the mouth of Forrest Gump, nor does it mean that the United States has to become "the world's policeman." Self-interest or not, we have learned some tough qualifiers in this part of the century, including this: If you can help it, don't enter until the goal is very clear, attainable and backed by superior force. Otherwise, you can make a bad situation worse.

Those pragmatic considerations seem to have been applied to the current situation. Of course, chances are 50-50 that the old Balkan enmities will flare up again. Those tribal hostilities are even more ancient than those between Arabs and Jews, or between the Irish and the English.

But in important matters, no decisions are risk-free. "There might be casualties," some fret about the prospect of troops in Bosnia. Others say that "after we leave, things might get bad again." Of course. That's what calculated risk is all about, if the calculation includes a sophisticated judgment on our self-interest, and those pragmatic considerations that weigh the possibilities of success and failure.

In situations like this, if leaders don't take calculated risks, they probably guarantee permanent war and despair. Yitzhak Rabin took such a calculated risk for his nation. In a scene that could not have taken place a decade ago, world leaders — including the leaders of many Arab regimes — found themselves in Jerusalem testifying for Rabin and his peacemaking efforts. Surely this is evidence that Rabin's risk-taking has already partly paid off. The dangers are not over, and the calculations must still be effected with caution, but there will be no further progress without risks.

Similarly, our self-interest will be served only if our leadership now takes calculated risks in the Balkans. World history tells us so. Jewish history tells us so.

The writer is director emeritus of Brandeis University's Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. He is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.