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"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. "

The U.S. 'Great Game' in Bosnia

The Nation, January 30, 1995 p.130-132
Joan Hoey is a writer specializing in the Balkans

For fair use only
Published under the provision of
U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.

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 rivals.

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 global policeman.

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 government.

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.

End quote.


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