What are we to make of U.S. policy in Bosnia? One minute Washington
is sending fighter planes to bomb the Bosnian Serbs, the next minute it
is sending peace envoys to negotiate cease-fires with them. Jimmy Carter's
peace mission was only the latest in a confusing sequence of about-turns
that have been the hallmark of U.S. diplomacy.
Whether or not there will be a lasting peace in Bosnia, following the
cease-fire negotiated by Carter, will depend largely on what Washington
does in the weeks and months ahead. Indeed, the pattern of the war over
the past thirty-four months has been shaped much more by the actions of
outside powers than by the will of those on the battlefield. The political
interventions of the United States, in particular, have been decisive in
influencing what happens on the ground.
From the U.S. campaign for Bosnian independence in March 1992 to the
Washington- sponsored Croat-Muslim federation in March 1994, American diplomacy
has fanned the flames of war.
Washington started out in 1991 by supporting the unity of Yugoslavia
and opposing the secessionist republics. By early 1992, the United States
was supporting the secessionist republic of Bosnia. In early 1993, the
Clinton Administration began by supporting the Vance-Owen plan for the
cantonization of Bosnia, but then changed its mind and brought about the
collapse of the plan. Later in 1993, Washington accepted the Owen-Stoltenberg
plan for the three-way partition of Bosnia, a virtual duplicate of the
three-way partition plan the Bush Administration had urged Sarajevo to
reject in 1992, then rejected it, then accepted it, then rejected it again.
Also in 1993, the United States adopted its "lift and strike" policy (i.e.,
lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government and launching airstrikes
against the Serbs), then abandoned this and began to characterize the Bosnian
war as a civil rather than an international conflict, then returned to
lift and strike. In 1994, Washington continued to blow hot and cold about
lift and strike, changing its mind from one month and even one week to
the next, blowing with the winds of Realpolitik.
Just about the only thing that has been consistent in the U.S. approach
to Yugoslavia is a determination to bolster America's authority at the
expense of its rivals. Thus the initial pro-Yugoslav policy in 1991 was
an attempt to slow down the dissolution of the cold war order upon which
America's ascendancy depended. America's about-face in 1992, when it led
the campaign for an independent Bosnia, had nothing to do with higher principle;
it was a maneuver to usurp the leadership role in Yugoslavia from Germany.
Washington's pursuit of the lift and strike policy through 1993 and 1994
was aimed at presenting the Europeans as appeasers and the Americans as
decisive leaders and defenders of a besieged multi-ethnic democracy.
Above all, American policy in Yugoslavia has been reactive- -reactive
not to what is happening on the ground but to what the other world powers
are doing at any particular time. Hence when France pushed for a settlement
in early 1994 that depended on the Europeans' extracting concessions from
the Serbs and the Americans' talking the Bosnian Muslims into making compromises,
Washington reacted within a month by issuing ultimatums and calling for
airstrikes against the Serbs in Sarajevo.
Since the end of the cold war, the Western alliance has been unraveling.
In the absence of the Soviet threat, the differences among the allies have
come to the fore. Yugoslavia has provided a focal point for the Western
powers as they vie for position and influence in the emerging post-cold
war order. Through intervention in Bosnia, each of the major powers has
sought to establish its global authority, usually at the expense of its
Thus Germany has used the conflict to put itself at the center of superpower
diplomacy. Bonn began by leading the campaign to recognize the secessionist
republics, Croatia and Slovenia, in the face of opposition from the other
Europeans and the United States. Having established its position bestriding
Europe, Germany has since acted in tandem with the Americans. Yugoslavia
has provided the opportunity not only for Germany's rise to power but also
for Bonn's strengthened strategic alliance with America.
France and Britain, the two powers whose global positions have been
undermined most by the end of the cold war, have sought to sustain their
great-power status through intervention in Bosnia. >From Francois Mitterrand's
dramatic visit to lift the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 to John Major's commitment
of more British ground troops in 1994, the leaders of these two fading
powers have tried to play the great statesman in Bosnia to bolster their
authority at home and abroad. Russia too has intervened in Bosnia in a
bid to reaffirm its status as a great power, insisting that it should have
a say in any settlement.
The instability that has characterized American policy in Bosnia can
best be understood in the context of this intensified global competition
among the alliance powers in recent years. And to this global disequilibrium
has been added a further destabilizing element for U.S. policy. The domestic
political shake-up is lending new weight to divisions in the foreign policy
establishment. Today, the political antagonisms (masquerading as differences
of principle) between Democrats and Republicans are played out not only
in Congress but in the global diplomatic arena. This is making U.S. policy
dangerously unpredictable, as evidenced by Washington's unilateral decision
to opt out of policing the arms embargo against the Bosnian government
in November, a move instigated by a clique of ambitious politicians in
the Republican Party. Practically, the U.S. move was of little moment,
but politically it was a bombshell. It was the most up-front statement
yet that Washington is pursuing its own agenda in Bosnia.
But this U.S. unilateralism puts Washington in a no-win situation. By
insisting that lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims and bombing
the Serbs is the answer, the United States is in danger of being exposed
as a paper tiger by drawing attention to a problem it cannot solve. Such
a policy is likely to undermine rather than enhance America's status as
Going it alone is also doing serious damage to the Western alliance.
The more the Americans alienate their allies over Bosnia, the less they
can expect of the alliance next time they want a favor done. Ultimately,
this policy risks exposing the idea of the "international community" for
the sham that it is. In the past, the United States has usually been able
to get multilateral cover for its foreign policy adventures. After Bosnia,
it is likely to be much harder. The next time the Americans ask the British
or the French to support an invasion here or a bombing there, the old allies
are likely to think twice about it. The more this happens, the more the
actions of the "international community" will be revealed for what they
really are--the self-interested exercise of power by competing states.
After a truce was called among the warring Western alliance powers in
December, commentators suggested that the United States had concluded that
saving NATO was more important than saving Bosnia. They were wrong. American
policy has never been concerned with saving Bosnia, only with preserving
America's global leadership. It would therefore be wishful thinking to
conclude that the war in NATO over Bosnia has ended. Although nobody in
Washington wants NATO to collapse, a subjective desire to hold the alliance
together seems insufficient to arrest an apparently unstoppable dynamic
toward unilateralism. Sooner or later this dynamic in U.S. foreign policy
will reassert itself, further weakening NATO.
As well as doing damage to the Western alliance, U.S. unilateralism
has had a destructive effect on the ground in Bosnia. The war was effectively
over in 1992. Yet almost three years later it is still dragging on. Last
August, after six months of virtual peace, during which there was clearly
little enthusiasm for more fighting among the warring factions, the war
flared up again and escalated through the autumn and winter months. The
conflict was reignited by U.S. diplomatic and logistic support of the Bosnian
Recall that in August, the Bosnian Fifth Corps launched an offensive
in northwest Bosnia against fellow Bosnian Muslims loyal to Fikret Abdic,
a Bihac politician and businessman who had made his peace with the Serbs
and Croats. After concerted shelling, the towns of Velika Kladusa and Cazin
both in the Bihac pocket, fell to the Fifth Corps. Some 30,000 Abdic loyalists
fled to Serb-held territory across the border in Croatia.
In October, the Fifth Corps launched an offensive out of the U.N.-designated
"safe area" of Bihac, cutting a swath through Serbian territory around
the enclave. The safe zone of Bihac was used as a staging area for attacks
against Serb populated areas on the Grabez plateau, leading to the expulsion
of about 10,000 Serbs, who escaped to neighboring Serb-held Croatia, following
the tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had fled the earlier Bosnian
Fifth Corps offensive.
The Bihac offensives were not exceptional. Elsewhere, Bosnian government
troops joined forces with the Croats to take the town of Kupres from the
Serbs. They also engaged the Serbs around Trnovo, Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo.
The cease-fire in Sarajevo was broken by government soldiers, who repeatedly
entered the demilitarized zone and launched attacks against the Serbs.
The point is that the Bosnian Army could not have launched such offensives
unaided. External intelligence and military support were essential to its
success. According to high-level European diplomatic and military sources,
the United States has been providing intelligence, tactical support, training
and arms to the Bosnian government forces. The CIA has denied that it is
working from the Sarajevo headquarters of the Bosnian Army, but it has
not denied that its operatives are on the ground in Bosnia. Other American
officials have been similarly selective in their denials. It would be a
U.S. foreign policy first if there were no CIA operatives in Bosnia. However,
even if there is not a single CIA agent on the ground, the United States
is doing more than enough overtly to influence what is happening on the
battlefield. Washington's declared lift and strike policy has encouraged
the Bosnian government to keep fighting in the hope that one day the United
States will really come to the rescue.
Bosnia has become the theater of war in which the rivalries among the
world powers are being played out. All of Bosnia is a stage and all its
armies merely players. It is not really their war any longer. The people
pulling the strings are in Washington, Bonn, London, Paris and Moscow.