Charles G Boyd. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 5. September 1995.
Rebecca West loved the peoples of the Balkans, but she is not the only traveler to return from there with some measure of cynicism. For more than two years, I have found myself increasingly consumed and frustrated by events in the former Yugoslavia. I have traveled to the region on several occasions and have had the advantage of hearing the personal views of young men and women in Croatia and Macedonia assigned to the American forces, the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROPOR), and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The views I share here are the product of seeing this war up close, almost continuously, in all its ugliness. These views differ from much of the conventional wisdom in Washington, which is stunted by a limited understanding of current events as well as a tragic ignorance or disregard of history. Most damaging of all, U.S. actions in the Balkans have been at sharp variance with stated U.S. policy.
The linchpin of the U.S. approach has been the underinformed notion that this is a war of good versus evil, of aggressor against aggrieved. From that premise the United States has supported U.N. and NATO resolutions couched in seemingly neutral terms—for example, to protect peacekeepers—and then has turned them around to punish one side and attempt to affect the course of the war. It has supported the creation of safe areas and demanded their protection even when they have been used by one warring faction to mount attacks against another. It has called for a negotiated resolution of the conflict even as it has labeled as war criminals those with whom it would negotiate. It has pushed for more humanitarian aid even as it became clear that this was subsidizing conflict and protecting the warring factions from the natural consequences of continuing the fighting. It has supported the legitimacy of a leadership that has become increasingly ethnocentric in its makeup, single-party in its rule, and manipulative in its diplomacy.
To take one example: recently more than go percent of the Serbs in western Slavonia were ethnically cleansed when Croatian troops overran that U.N.-protected area in May. As of this writing this Croatian operation appears to differ from Serbian actions around the U.N. safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa only in the degree of Western hand-wringing and CNN footage the latter have elicited. Ethnic cleansing evokes condemnation only when it is committed by Serbs, not against them.
We must see things in the Balkans as they are, not as we wish them to be. We must separate reality from image. Is it possible that all sides have legitimate interests and fears, or does legitimacy remain the special province of only one or two factions? We need a healthy skepticism about accepted “wisdom,” and above all, we need to tell the truth, if only to ourselves.
All factions in the former Yugoslavia have pursued the same objective—avoiding minority status in Yugoslavia or any successor state—and all have used the tools most readily available to achieve that end. For the Croats that meant a declaration of independence from a Yugoslav federation increasingly dominated by Serb nationalism and an appeal to the European Union for recognition. The new state identified itself and full citizenship within it as Croatian and claimed sovereignty extending to the boundaries of the old Croat Republic of the Yugoslav federation. Bosnia’s Muslims had no such option as they were a plurality, not a majority, on their territory. They were also considerably less enthusiastic about leaving the federation, recognizing that with its explosive population mix, Bosnia seemed to make more sense as part of a larger multiethnic Yugoslavia than as a stand-alone entity. The secession of Slovenia and Croatia left a rump Yugoslavia formed around Serbia and Montenegro an even less hospitable home, however, and Bosnia’s Muslims too opted for secession.
In recognizing the new Bosnian state, the international community demanded, and Bosnia’s Muslims (and some of their Serb and Croat neighbors) delivered, a commitment to democracy and individual rights that made the nations of the West comfortable with their own commitment to the new Bosnian state. Their approach was tactically sound and, as a practical matter, the only course available to Bosnia’s well-educated but under-armed Muslim plurality if it was to preserve its newly proclaimed independence. Pointing this out does not diminish the essential nobility of this course, nor the obvious moral advantage it gave the new state in comparison with some of its neighbors.
In this atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and resurgent nationalism, first the Croatian and then the Bosnian Serbs—with Serbian support—took up arms to do what international recognition had done for the Croats of Croatia and the Muslims of Bosnia: ensure that they would not be a minority in a state they perceived to be hostile. What is frequently referred to as rampant Serb nationalism and the creation of a greater Serbia has often been the same volatile mixture of fear, opportunism, and historical myopia that seems to motivate patriots everywhere in the Balkans. Much of what Zagreb calls the occupied territories is in fact land held by Serbs for more than three centuries, ever since imperial Austria moved Serbs to the frontier (the Krajina) to protect the shopkeepers of Vienna (and Zagreb) from the Ottomans. The same is true of most Serb land in Bosnia, what the Western media frequently refers to as the 70 percent of Bosnia seized by rebel Serbs. There were only 500,000 fewer Serbs than Muslims in Bosnia at independence, with the more rural Serbs tending toward larger landholdings. In short, the Serbs are not trying to conquer new territory, but merely to hold on to what was already theirs.
These are not minor historical points. The twin poles of much of Western diplomacy in the Balkans and elsewhere have been self-determination and the inviolability of borders. In the cases of Croatia and Bosnia, as well as Slovenia and Macedonia, Western nations suffered a temporary lapse in their concern over borders, accepting the dissolution of a U.N. member nation in favor of self-determination. That policy contributed to stability where the will of the population was most clear—ethnically homogeneous Slovenia—and led to catastrophic destabilization where the will of the population was most ambiguous—ethnically mixed Bosnia. One-third of Bosnia’s population boycotted the referendum on independence and made it unmistakably clear that it would take up arms if the new state was created and recognized.
There are legitimate concerns over what constitutes an appropriate unit of self-determination; the United States cannot possibly support ever-shrinking pockets of ethnic preference. But the United States hobbles its understanding of this conflict if it imputes its global concerns to the local players. As one Serb officer confided to a member of my staff, he did not understand why his people had been “satanized” for insisting on the same right of self-determination that had been accorded virtually all others in the former Yugoslavia.
War in Bosnia and Croatia was not the inevitable product of centuries of ethnic hatreds. It was created from ambition, fear, and incompetence—local and international.
The Conduct of the War
No one of conscience can ignore the moral dimension of this crisis. Unspeakable acts have been perpetrated on the innocent. I have flown over Bosnian villages and seen the results, not of combat, but of ethnically based criminal violence, homes within a village selectively and systematically destroyed as the majority population—Muslim, Serb, or Croat—cleansed its community of now unwanted minorities. I have walked the streets of villages like Gornji Vakuf and seen the faces of angry, armed young men staring at one another across city squares and streets transformed into ethnic confrontation lines. No one can visit Mostar and witness the city’s historic center—made rubble by small arms fire—and not feel and fear how thin the veneer of civility must be for us all. And as one turns every corner in Sarajevo to be greeted by more destruction, it is difficult to escape the questions, what manner of man is in those hills, and what possessed him to pull the lanyard on his artillery?
But to make rational judgments of policy requires a depth of understanding that goes beyond a transient image or sound bite. For some, the war in Bosnia has become a tragedy of proportions that parallel the Holocaust, an example of plain good against stark evil. For these people, the Serbs are the forces of darkness, responsible for most if not all of the atrocities, the ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, concentration camps, and indiscriminate killing.
Regrettably, that behavior is not unprecedented in Balkan conflicts, and to say that it is peculiarly Serb behavior says more about the observer than the Balkans. If one comes into the movie in 1991 or 1992, a case can be made that the Serbs indeed are the villains of this picture, but to ignore the previous reels will, at a minimum, impair divining the ultimate plot line. And let me dare to suggest that my observations tell me that even today’s picture is more complex than is generally regarded. The public view of this war has come largely through the eyes of one party, a people, as Rebecca West warned, whose status as victim has been a valuable and jealously protected too of war. Make no mistake: Serb behavior has been reprehensible. The question is how bad? On what scale? And how unique? Analysis of what has happened is not a claim of moral equivalence, nor is it a justification for the actions being examined.
How bad has this war been? When one drives past the destroyed speed-skating rink and the Olympic stadium in Sarajevo, the eye involuntarily turns to row upon row of markers atop fresh graves dug in the new and largest cemetery in the capital. Clearly, thousands have died in Sarajevo. How many people have died in this war overall? Nobody knows. The Bosnian government has an interest in portraying the number as high as possible: it is a testament to the savagery of their opponent, a cry for assistance and at the same time an indictment of a cautious international community. Until recently the government claimed the number of dead and missing to be about 250,000. Many have been skeptical of that figure, with some suggesting the real number could be as low as 25,000, although other estimates—including my own—are more frequently in the 70,000 to 100,000 range. In April the government lowered its estimate to just over 145,000, about 3 percent of the prewar population. That is a sobering number, but even accepting it at face value and granting that it is unevenly distributed across the population, does that total after 38 months of warfare make charges of genocide a meaningful contribution to policy debate?
Sarajevo is instructive. The government estimate puts the death toll in the capital just above 10,000. Someone has calculated that the city has been hit by 600,000 shells, and some 60 percent of its buildings have been destroyed or severely damaged. Recent fighting, shelling, and harassment of humanitarian convoys have once again increased the city’s suffering and isolation. What normalcy that exists there is a tribute to international relief efforts and, above all, the courage and resilience of the city’s population.
The city’s actual suffering, however, does not change the reality that the image of Sarajevo, battered and besieged, is a valuable tool for the Bosnian government. As that government was commemorating the thousandth day of the siege, local markets were selling oranges, lemons, and bananas at prices only slightly higher than prices in western Europe. At the same time the commercial price of gasoline in Sarajevo was 35 percent cheaper than gasoline in Germany. A World Food Programme survey in May 1984 found that, after a tough winter for Sarajevo, no one in the city was malnourished, and only a small percentage of the population was undernourished. Even the rate of violent deaths had gone down considerably in 1984 (324 for the year according to the United Nations; the per capita rate was comparable to some North American cities and slightly lower than Washington, D.C.), although press coverage and government statements gave the image of unrelenting siege.
Some of the city’s suffering has actually been imposed on it by actions of the Sarajevo government. Some were understandable policies, like the restriction on travel to prevent the depopulation of the city during those periods when movement was possible. Others were the by-product of government weakness, like relying on the Sarajevo underworld for the initial defense of the city, thereby empowering criminal elements that took their toll on the population, especially Serbs. Still others were intentional; whether out of individual greed or official policy is unclear. Government soldiers, for example, have shelled the Sarajevo airport, the city’s primary lifeline for relief supplies. The press and some governments, including that of the United States, usually attribute all such fire to the Serbs, but no seasoned observer in Sarajevo doubts for a moment that Muslim forces have found it in their interest to shell friendly targets. In this case, the shelling usually closes the airport for a time, driving up the price of black-market goods that enter the city via routes controlled by Bosnian army commanders and government officials. Similarly, during the winter of 1993-94, the municipal government helped deny water to the city’s population. An American foundation had implemented an innovative scheme to pump water into the city’s empty lines, only to be denied permission by the government for health reasons. The denial had less to do with water purity than with the opposition of some Sarajevo officials who were reselling U.N. fuel donated to help distribute water. And, of course, the sight of Sarajevans lining up at water distribution points, sometimes under mortar and sniper fire, was a poignant image.
The war has also redrawn the demographic map of Bosnia; fear, combat, and nationalist extremism have displaced upwards of two million people. Much of this displacement has been forced population movements, the engine for much of which has been Serbian—Serb fear, Serb security demands, and Serb cruelty. When the Serbs took up arms in the spring of 1992, their immediate aim was to secure their communities from real and imagined threats from their non-Serb neighbors. With this accomplished, they moved to connect Serb areas with secure lines of communication through locations in which other ethnic groups were dominant. In both operations, non-Serbs were viewed as security threats and cleansed from the territory in question. In a campaign that appeared to reflect central direction and planning, Serb excesses were common and well documented.
Less generally known are Serb population movements. During a visit to Sarajevo in February a senior U.N. official told me that there may be as few as 500,000 Serbs on Serb-held territory in Bosnia. Combined with the 200,000 Serbs that he estimated are living on Bosnian-controlled land, the Serb population in Bosnia may be only about half its prewar total. Like their former neighbors, Bosnia’s Serbs can point to fear, combat, and forced expulsion as the reasons for their movement, although the proportions are likely different.
Serbian people have suffered when hostile forces have advanced, with little interest or condemnation by Washington or CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Late in 1994, when the Bosnian V Corps broke out of the Bihac pocket, they burned villages as they went and forced several thousand Serbs to flee. The same happened when Bosnian Croat forces pushed up the Livno valley shortly thereafter. If anyone doubts the capacity of Bosnia’s non-Serb population to inflict ethnic cruelty, let him or her visit the Croat enclaves around Kiseljak or Vitez. The scarred shells of Catholic churches and Muslim mosques as well as thousands of private homes give ample testimony to the barbarity of Muslim and Croat violence, and these Muslim and Croat troops likely did what they did for much the same reasons as their Serb neighbors: revenge for real and alleged sins of the past and the perceived demands of present security. There are times when the distinctions among the factions appear more a question of power and opportunity than morality.
The Future Course of the War
The strategic situation on the ground has changed substantially since the war began. Three years of fear, combat, and crime masquerading as battle have effected great change. With their enclaves largely preserved, Croats see their future more in their relationship with Zagreb than with Sarajevo. And with the 1993-94 combat and atrocities a fresh memory, they view their Muslim federation partners with distrust, frequently echoing Serb fears of the encroachment of Islam into Christian Europe. Bosnia’s Croats joined the federation to get out of the Bosnian war (which they were losing) and have little interest in joining any sustained campaigns against Bosnia’s Serbs. This is not true of Bosnia’s Muslims and Serbs. Without question, these factions each intend to win this war. The Serbs think they have won already and want the war to end. The Muslims know they have not and are seeking ways to continue it.
Serbs suffer from the general depopulation of the areas they control; economic activity is depressed, and they are hard-pressed to marshal forces. The popular image of this war is one of unrelenting Serb expansion, but much of Bosnia has historically been Serb, and the recent Serb moves against the eastern enclaves represent the only significant changes in their area of control in nearly two years.
Muslims have been largely forced into the central core of the country. This has provided the Sarajevo government with a strong base and internal lines of communication with which to take the fight to extended Serb units. The refugee population that forms the core of the Bosnian army guarantees a numerical advantage (150,000-200,000 to 80,000) and ensures a continued will to fight to recapture lost territory.
Even the Serb advantage in heavy equipment is not what it once was. The closure of the Serbian border by Belgrade is incomplete and imperfect but nonetheless real. It has affected Bosnian Serb access to fuel and equipment. Meanwhile, the flow of armaments passing to Bosnian forces continues almost unremarked upon by the international community. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s much-trumpeted desire to lift the embargo would be amusing but for the fact that it would almost certainly lead to the introduction of U.S. ground forces. The embargo has been lifted in all but name, to the delight of much of the U.S. policy elite. To be sure, since supplies must pass through Croatian territory, Zagreb controls the types of weapons that pass to Bosnia and continues to deny the heavy weapons that could challenge it in renewed Muslim-Croat fighting. Nonetheless, the Muslims’ forces are vastly better off than they were earlier in the war. The armies in Bosnia—Serb and Muslim—are asymmetrical in their military power, but they are very closely matched. Serbian successes against the eastern enclaves in July were small-scale operations against isolated, demoralized units. That Serbian units did not attack the government army in central Bosnia—Sarajevo’s real center of gravity—is a reflection of this new balance. And time is quite likely on the side of the Muslims.
It is a remarkable achievement of Bosnian diplomacy, and one reinforced by the government’s rhetoric after the fall of Srebrenica, that the Muslims have been able to gain significant military parity with the Serbs, while nonetheless maintaining the image of hapless victim in the eyes of much of the world community. It is all the more remarkable since, before the Srebrenica attack, the Muslims had been on the strategic offensive for more than a year.
In this campaign the Muslims have consistently tried to use the United Nations and NATO (with the attendant safe areas, no-fly zones, exclusion zones, and demilitarized zones) as a shield, allowing themselves to weaken their forces in one area—depending on the United Nations or the international community to protect it—while concentrating their forces elsewhere. In the winter of 1993-94 the Sarajevo government stripped the capital’s defenses to release troops to fight against the Croats in central Bosnia, counting on their public diplomacy efforts to manage the risk to Sarajevo. It was a near-run thing, but in the end the city was protected by the threat of NATO air strikes and the imposition of a heavy-weapons exclusion zone.
This spring and summer the Muslims excoriated the United Nations for failing to protect Sarajevo, or as one U.N. official privately put it, for failing to do their fighting for them. Almost immediately after the Serb shelling of the tunnel under he Sarajevo airport—the only route open for Muslim military supplies and commercial goods—the Bosnian government demanded NATO air strikes, attacked the passive attitude of UNPROFOR, and complained that the genocide was continuing; Sarajevo was still a death camp. Holocaust-like rhetoric was even more prominently featured in government statements following the mid-July fall of Srebrenica.
All of this is designed to enlist active military intervention in support of Muslim war aims. To date this campaign appears to have been successful in guaranteeing the Bosnian government against catastrophic failure in continuing to pursue the military option. The Bosnian army may suffer casualties and even significant defeats, but neither the existence of the Bosnian state nor its control over the core of its territory can be seriously jeopardized without provoking a sharp international response. Beyond this, the Sarajevo government hopes to prod NATO and particularly the United States into even more active intervention. French President Jacques Chirac’s challenge to President Clinton to help the Bosnians defend Gorazde and the latter’s willingness to consider helicopter an air support for the operation suggest that the effort might yet bear fruit.
Last fall’s action around Bihac—a portion of which is a U.N. safe area—is particularly instructive. The situation in this pocket is complex, even by Balkan standards. The Bosnian government unit there, the V Corps, was opposed by both Bosnian Serb forces and troops loyal to Fikret Abdic, usually described in Western press accounts as renegade Muslim units. Actually Abdic, a powerful local businessman, was a member of the Bosnian collective presidency (he outpolled Izetbegovic in national elections) and had been expelled from the government (or broke with it, depending on your point of view) when Sarajevo rejected an internationally brokered peace agreement. Eager for profit and familiar with operating on the gray side of the law, Abdic established his own state and mutually profitable relationships with his Serb and Croat neighbors. These ties were one of the few examples of successful multiethnic cooperation in the Balkans.
The Bosnian V Corps was still a fighting force, however, and in a series of well-conducted campaigns it defeated Abdic’s largely mercenary army. The V Corps then turned its attention to the Bosnian Serb forces that surrounded it, broke out of the pocket, and captured several hundred square kilometers of territory from a shaken Serb opponent.
Serb forces were hard-pressed, and to mount a counterattack they had to rely not only on forces in Bosnia but units in the Krajina of Croatia as well. Slowly the Serbs pushed the V Corps back to approximately the original lines of confrontation. The V Corps gave ground but was never defeated and remains an effective fighting force to this day. During the counterattack, however, the Bosnian government and many in the international community demanded that the United Nations and NATO protect the Bihac safe area from Serb aggression. A common theme was the impending humanitarian catastrophe if strong steps were not taken—even though this was a fight that the Muslim army had picked, there was limited damage to the safe area, and Bihac was the headquarters and garrison town of the Bosnian units that had mounted the attack. Finally, rather than work toward a cease-fire to fend off the looming tragedy, Bosnian government actions were clearly orchestrated to create the conditions for NATO air strikes, not a cessation of hostilities.
How to Make Peace
I believe that the U.S. approach to the war in Bosnia is torn by a fundamental contradiction. The United States says that its objective is to end the war through a negotiated settlement, but in reality what it wants is to influence the outcome in favor of the Muslims. The United States, for example, watched approvingly as Muslim offensives began this spring, even though these attacks destroyed a ceasefire Washington has supported. This duplicity, so crude and obvious to all in Europe, has weakened America’s moral authority to provide any kind of effective diplomatic leadership. Worse, because of this, the impact of U.S. action has been to prolong the conflict while bringing it no closer to resolution.
The United States recognized the secession of Bosnia reluctantly, but having done that, it embraced the new state and both praised and supported its multiethnic character. Whether this character was ever real or had a reasonable chance of success is a fair subject of debate, but no reasonable person can believe that a unitary, multiethnic Bosnia is possible today. Nonetheless, Washington treats the Bosnian government as it—and perhaps the best of the Bosnian leadership—hoped and dreamed the country would be. It is not. It is the representative of one warring faction.
More balanced American diplomats admit privately that the Bosnian Serbs—like their Muslim and Croat neighbors—are not without legitimate interests and concerns in this conflict. The United States rarely addresses the problem in this light and for much of the past three years has based its approach more on excluding than including the Serbs. Former President Jimmy Carter made this point following his December visit to Sarajevo and Pale when he commented to the author that negotiating with one side, condemning the other, and issuing ultimatums was unlikely to lead to any agreement.
It is worse than that. Isolation and privation have helped legitimize in the eyes of Serbs the worst of the Serb nation, to make acceptable to the broader population the faction that said the world was their enemy, that they were history’s victims and Europe’s protectors, that so great was their danger that any measures were appropriate to their defense. Demonization has unleashed demons.
How then is the United States to make tomorrow better than today? The most important change is to start telling the truth. The result will be, aside from restoring some moral stature, to reduce the fighting.
To think with clarity about the former Yugoslavia that exists rather than the one the U.S. administration would prefer and then to speak with honesty about it will be very difficult given the distance this government has traveled down the road of Serb vilification and Muslim and Croat approval. But until the U.S. government can come to grips with the essential similarities between Serb, Croat, and Muslim and recognize that the fears and aspirations of all are equally important, no effective policy can possibly be crafted that would help produce an enduring peace. This truth, however difficult to acknowledge publicly at this late date, must at the very least be recognized privately so that a revamp of policy can proceed from clear and accurate premises.
The first step is for the United States to announce, and then follow through by its actions, that it really does oppose a military solution. That would require a cessation of all the nonsense rhetoric about lifting an embargo that has in reality long since been lifted and about leveling a playing field that is as nearly level as it is likely to get. As long as the flow of arms through Croatia to Bosnia continues to be taxed by the Croats in terms of a percentage of the total plus a prohibition on most heavy weapons (which the Croats understandably do not want to face the next time they square off against the Muslims), the strategic balance that now exists in Bosnia will likely remain.
By turning a bind eye to these arms deliveries while screeching at Belgrade to stop whatever still continues across the Drina to the Bosnian Serbs, the United States does two things: one, it disqualifies itself as the fair and balanced intermediary in the peace process, and two, it sends a powerful signal to the Muslims that a military solution is acceptable and perhaps preferred, notwithstanding solemn public statements in support of the diplomatic process.
Once established as actually supporting the arms embargo, the United States can gain credibility by opposing military activity irrespective of the source. Strong public denunciation must follow all attacks by Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian government forces, or for that matter Croatian campaigns such as that against the Krajinian Serbs in the western sector. The quiet approval by the United States when the Muslim forces broke the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement must change to condemnation just as stern as that directed at the Bosnian Serbs as they captured Srebrenica. Moreover, an absolutely impartial use of NATO air power against any faction that violates a U.N. sanction, not just the Serbs, must also become the expected response that the United States supports if the antagonists are to be persuaded that violence is not acceptable. This, if nothing else, will certainly help reduce the dying.
The second step is to reinforce peace and cooperation where they are found. The Bosnian federation is a starting point. The slow progress of building Muslim-Croat cooperation highlights the difficulties ahead, but the major failing of the federation is not the pace of its progress but its biethnic nature. It includes none of the Serbs in Bosnia, many of whom live in government-controlled lands. If the United States is not anti-Serb—merely against criminals and those who would choose war over peace—it must address the status of these citizens. Making peace with the Serbs in federation territory and giving them an identity, political voice, and the potential for constitutional options comparable to Bosnia’s Croats would send a powerful signal to those in Bosnian Serb territory that there are options beyond war and isolation.
The third major step is to restart the negotiation process. In the Washington agreement that led to the federation, the United States treated Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims as separate entities, accorded their leaders legitimacy, brokered a deal between the two that largely stopped the killing, sought the ratification of that deal from a foreign power (Croatia), and recognized the validity of constitutional ties from one of those ethnic communities to another state (again, Croatia). The Contact Group’s approach to Bosnia’s Serbs (largely driven by U.S. pressure) has been decidedly different—a take-it-or-leave-it map. Under these circumstances there are no incentives for the Bosnian government to negotiate or compromise. That leaves the Serbs with three choices: accept the Contact Group plan, respond to government military action, or drastically increase the level of violence to force a military decision. The current map is unacceptable, so the fighting continues.
A key to restarting the negotiation process may lie with the nation that has quietly, but continuously, been marginalized: Russia. The United States’ apparent desire to minimize Russia’s involvement in the peace process is difficult to comprehend but may be rooted in two fears: that Russia would balk at using the peace process to advance for the Muslims diplomatically what they could not achieve militarily; and that Russia, currently on the sidelines in the international community, would gain considerable prestige and renewed diplomatic status from a success in brokering a solution to the conflict.
Whether these fears existed or were justified in the past is no longer relevant. The United States has now reached the point where the Russians may be its best hope for facilitating a diplomatic solution. The United States, for reasons of credibility, cannot do so; it can talk effectively with only two sides and therefore is not in a position to lead the diplomatic effort. Likewise, the United States has coopted the other players of the Contact Group, except Russia. In this regard, the Russians are untainted and have more credibility with the Serbs. Perhaps only they can address the Serbs’ deepest fears and give them the confidence no other party has been interested in providing. And the Russians may like this new role. It would give them foreign policy stature in the wake of their debacle in Chechnya and a chance to prove their willingness and ability to play a constructive diplomatic role. More important, it would give the West new hope for settling the conflict diplomatically where no other option seems viable. This significant role comes with a risk, but at this stage it is a worthwhile price the United States may have to pay to stop the war. If the marginalization of Russia has not alienated the latter beyond redemption, the United States should seek its full partnership immediately.
The hour is late in Bosnia. By the time you read this, the United States may not be able to prevent the withdrawal of U.N. forces; it may even be beyond its ability to resist the pressures to deploy American ground troops, goaded by a strangely bellicose press and anxious allies. But if the United States is to insert itself, it should do so without illusion. Without a determined policy choice to the contrary, it would in fact be entering not to reinforce the peace, but rather to help one faction win, a faction that has been maneuvering for such intervention since the Bosnian state was created. It would be allowing its European allies who, until now, have had the lead militarily in the Balkans, to transfer the tar now stuck to their fingers to the United States’ and force America to assume the moral responsibility for the outcome of the conflict.
All this will be at considerable cost because in this conflict only very large numbers of troops on the ground will make a difference. Despite its appeal to the amateur strategist, a reliance on air power alone—the strike option—-in this type of terrain with these kinds of targets has never held any real promise of conflict resolution. Given the political dynamics that developed after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa and as Gorazde seemed threatened, a strong response from NATO was necessary if further erosion of its credibility was to be avoided. And indeed, the use of “robust” air power can have an effect on Serb behavior, particularly if it is used without regard for civilian casualties. But it cannot make the Serbs want to live as an ethnic minority in a nation they perceive to be hostile. It can only reinforce the paranoia that drives them to continue the fight so relentlessly even now.
Pushing NATO to agree to the robust use of its air power, then, as with most of the other U.S. policy moves in the former Yugoslavia, is linked more to the immediacy of the evening newscasts than to a rational overall political objective. For that reason it can have no more than a near-term effect. At the end of the day the United States must face the reality that it cannot produce an enduring solution with military force—air or ground—only one that will last until it departs.
There is an alternative: proceed from the premise that all factions to the conflict have legitimate needs, not just Muslims and Croats. Leverage Belgrade and Zagreb equally to stop the flow of arms to Bosnia. Denounce the use of military force with equal indignation toward all perpetrators. Pressure the Bosnians to negotiate in good faith or risk true abandonment. Enlist the Russians both to represent and dampen Serb demands. Enforce a ceasefire impartially.
There need be no illusions about the future. Given the horrors of the last three years, rebuilding trust in Bosnia will take a very long time. True healing is beyond our means. The best we can hope for is to create the conditions for Bosnia to heal itself. The U.S. can aid in this process but only if it is willing to be honest, at least to itself.