Clinton's Debacle in Bosnia

by Marshall Freeman Harris

In December 1995 the Clinton Administration ended the fighting in Bosnia- Herzegovina. Proud of what was perceived as one of his few foreign policy successes, President Clinton announced that, under the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, 'refugees will be allowed to return to their homes'. He continued: 'People will be able to move freely throughout Bosnia, and the human rights of every Bosnian citizen will be monitored by an independent commission and an internationally trained civilian police force. Those individuals charged with war crimes will be excluded from political life.' None of these things have happened. As a result, Bosnia is being partitioned into three ethnically pure mini-states.

The non-implementation of the civilian side of the Accords leaves hundreds of thousands of Bosnia's 2.2. million displaced persons aggrieved. In addition, three major strategic regions of the country are left indecisively addressed or unresolved: Gorazde is left militarily indefensible, Sarajevo militarily exposed, and Brcko subject to a future arbitration agreement. The refusal of US and other foreign troops in the NATO-led International Implementation Force (IFOR) to facilitate the Accords' key civilian aspects - including the return of refugees, the apprehension of war criminals and the conduct of free and fair elections - exponentially increases the risk that one of these potential flash points will ignite.

For now, however, the Clinton Administration continues to trumpet the success of its belated intervention in Bosnia. Its most remarkable claim along these lines has been that its extraordinary leadership in marshalling intensive diplomacy and the brilliant use of military force brought peace to an embattled land and its beleaguered peoples. The Dayton peace settlement, however, represents nothing of the sort. The Administration's intensive diplomacy was directed mainly toward the victimized Bosnian government, which was forced to make more and more concessions until the Pale regime agreed to end the war. Its military force was employed not to inflict strategic damage on the rebel Serb forces, but merely to bring them to the negotiating table where they would be rewarded with their own state on half of Bosnia's territory. Its leadership was used not to punish aggression, redress the harm to Bosnia's victims, or drag Britain and France into support for a just and sustainable peace settlement; it was used instead to ensure that Serbia would keep most of its spoils in Bosnia, to force the legitimate, multi-ethnic government of the UN-member state of Bosnia-Herzegovina into surrendering parts of the country's sovereignty and territory, and to acquiesce in Anglo-French policies that abjured either military intervention against the Serbian forces or military as well as political support to preserve the Bosnian state.

This acquiescence in the Anglo-French partitioning policy is the most significant characteristic of the settlement that was brokered by the Clinton Administration at Dayton. The Accords represent the culmination of a lengthy process by which the United States shifted from advocacy of the use of military force and Bosnia's right of self-defence to full acceptance of the British and French governments' de facto recognition of a 'Greater Serbia'. Rather than lead, the Administration simply capitulated.

The West's Record in Bosnia

In order to understand the Clinton Administration's moves toward appeasement one must examine the West's record from the beginning of the conflict. At the time of Serbia's initial attack on Bosnia and Croatia, the major powers (including Russia) accurately defined the conflict as external aggression and laid the groundwork for taking firm action to end it. The United Nations Security Council passed resolutions that respected Bosnian and Croatian sovereignty. Most notably, Resolution 752 in May 1992 demanded that all Serbian interference in Bosnia cease and that all forces other than those of the Bosnian Army withdraw, disarm or surrender. Further resolutions authorized the use of 'all necessary means' to ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance. To keep the pressure on Belgrade, another Security Council resolution imposed economic and political sanctions against Belgrade and made their termination contingent upon Serbia's compliance with Resolution 752. The resulting UNPROFOR (UN Protection Force) mission, however, was inadequate to its tasks in both troop strength and equipment. And although the poorly prepared UN troops simply became a substitute for - indeed an alibi against - effective action, the initial commitment to facilitate a just and sustainable peace was clear. The commitment of the United States was even clearer.

When it took office in January 1993, the Clinton Administration seemed poised to take full advantage of the UN's reiteration of international authority to intervene. Members of the President-elect's transition team, however, demonstrated at an early date their distaste for unilateral action - which the United States or any other nation was fully authorized to take. Such unilateral action could have included, inter alia, arming Bosnian government forces, bombing Serbian targets in Bosnia, Croatia and/or Serbia proper, and even introducing US ground combat troops. Instead, the Administration supported stronger action couched in the multilateralism of the UN. Candidate Clinton first displayed his ideological bent in August 1992, when Serb concentration camps were discovered in Bosnia. He stated: 'The United Nations demands [for Serbian aggression to be halted and camps closed] should be backed by collective action, including the use of force, if necessary. The United Nations should be prepared to lend appropriate support, including military, to such an operation.'

After the November 1992 election, President Clinton's transition team commissioned a complete Bosnia policy review and evaluation of available options. The State Department officials, however, presented less than a full range of options to their political superiors. Career officers, who had been conditioned against temerity through two years of the Bush Administration's inaction, inattention and pre-election jitters, did not seem to realize that they could now speak openly and even favourably of military solutions.

On 10 February 1993 the Administration acted on the review by enunciating its new policy in a speech by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The new policy represented both a step forward and a missed opportunity. For the first time since the early UN resolutions were drafted, the conflict was defined honestly as cross-border aggression that affected US interests and demanded a stronger response. Christopher stated: 'Serbian ethnic cleansing has been pursued through mass murders, systematic beatings, and the rape of Muslims and others, prolonged shelling of innocents in Sarajevo and elsewhere, forced displacement of entire villages [and] inhuman treatment of prisoners in detention camps.' He also stated: 'The continuing destruction of a new UN member state challenges the principle that internationally recognized borders should not be altered by force. [...] The world's response to the violence in the former Yugoslavia is an early and crucial test of how it will address the critical concerns of ethnic and religious minorities in the post-Cold War world.'

Christopher missed the opportunity, however, to meet the early and crucial test of the new Administration's resolve by matching this strong rhetoric with a credible threat of force. In the first of many demonstrations of the Administration's discomfort with the foreign-policy responsibilities and power incumbent upon the United States, Christopher pledged merely to bring the 'full weight of American diplomacy to bear on finding a peaceful solution.' Not only were the Serbian forces not presented with an ultimatum to halt the offensives and outrages that had so distressed Clinton and his team, but the Administration also linked itself more directly to the European Union's negotiating process. These talks had, for more than a year, not only failed to curb Serbian offensives, but also enabled Belgrade slowly and steadily to increase its political and territorial demands.

Even the rhetoric alone, however, initiated a three-month period in which US policy was at odds with those of Britain, France and a newly assertive Russia. This gap grew into a chasm during Secretary Christopher's disastrous May 1993 trip to Europe. His intent was to convince American allies to join the United States in lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government and, if necessary, during an interim period while the Bosnians integrated the weaponry, launching air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets.

The Crisis of US Policy

European and Russian leaders expected Christopher to assert American leadership, as his predecessors had done many times before. His weak approach gave them to understand that President Clinton himself was not sufficiently committed to act forcefully. Opposition to ;lift and strike' hardened rather than collapsed, and Christopher returned to Washington empty-handed. In summing up this 'exchange of views', former US Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle stated: 'It was an exchange all right: Warren Christopher went to Europe with an American policy and he came back with a European one.'

Christopher's failed mission of May 1993 and its continuing pernicious effects constitute the defining crisis of American policy in Bosnia. From then on, the Clinton Administration began to capitulate to European views and redefine the conflict in terms that Europe found more convenient. Within only a few days after his return from Europe, Christopher signed on to the European and Russian 'Joint Action Programme'. What had been the Europeans' alternative proposals to 'lift and strike' - specifically, designating the six remaining Bosnian enclaves as 'safe areas' subject to UN protection - actually became US policy. One month later, after intense lobbying by its 'Joint Action Partners', France, Russia and Spain (then in the UN Security Council Presidency), the Administration - despite its vocal public opposition to the weapons ban - agreed not to work for passage of a UN Security Council resolution to end the arms embargo. While the Administration itself voted 'yes' in the General Assembly, the lack of active American lobbying to obtain additional support doomed the measure to failure.

In August 1993 Serbian forces escalated the siege of Sarajevo with massive artillery and mortar fire on civilian targets. The West European and Russian response was again to pressure the Bosnian government - not the Serbians - to accept the international peace plan then on offer in Geneva as the best and only deal available. Having vowed repeatedly that it would not pressurize the Bosnian government to accept a particular settlement, the Administration at first resisted. Then it joined in urging its victims to surrender.

By the time of the NATO summit in Brussels in January 1994, roles had been so utterly reversed that France was able to assume the mantle of leadership in NATO by calling for air strikes to halt Serbian attacks around Sarajevo. The administration followed France's lead. As always throughout the conflict, France's motivation in seeking this threat was not to promote a just peace by reversing or even halting the Serbian aggression, but rather to obtain a quick settlement. Indeed, France had until then been a leading opponent of air action.

The Contact Group Plans Partition

In May 1994, after more than six months of entreaties from its European allies, the Administration openly accepted the international mediators' formula that would leave forty-nine percent of Bosnia under Serbian control. Later that month, US representatives joined West European nations and Russia in the 'Contact Group', with the goal of devising a new territorial plan to partition Bosnia. For more than a year Administration officials had vowed that the United States would not join in such 'map-making'. For the next two months map-making was the top priority and principal activity of Clinton's Bosnia team.

In July 1994 the Administration argued that the Bosnian Serbs should be given an ultimatum: accept the Contact Group partition plan or the arms embargo against the Bosnian government would be terminated. But Russia, France and Britain persuaded the Administration to back down. At the Contact Group ministerial meeting in Geneva, Secretary Christopher - rather than continuing to advocate the US position - merely echoed his European counterparts with a hollow warning that 'at the end of the day', if the Bosnian Serbs did not accept the Contact Group plan, ending the arms embargo would become 'a very strong possibility'.

In September 1994 the Administration succumbed to British and French pressure to support and participate in an international mission to monitor Serbia's borders with Bosnia and certify whether Serbian President Milosevic was honouring his pledge to cut off all but humanitarian assistance to his Bosnian Serb proxies. Throughout the spring of 1993 the Clinton Administration had refused to support such a mission on two grounds: first, that such a token, largely symbolic mission could not reliably certify that the border was closed; and second, that the isolated and poorly armed monitors would be sitting targets for Serbian troops seeking Western hostages. Yet the 1994 mission was even smaller and more poorly armed than the smallest mission to which the Administration had objected in 1993.

In February 1995 Moscow unveiled a plan to suspend sanctions against Serbia in exchange for a commitment by Belgrade to grant diplomatic recognition to the former Yugoslav republics. Administration officials embraced the initiative and even claimed it as their own. The proposal revealed the Contact Group, and in particular the Clinton Administration, at their weakest. Twenty months earlier the Administration had decided to launch, albeit ineptly, a policy to halt Serbian aggression with air strikes and a full weapons programme for Milosevic's victims. Now it was prepared to take no action at all against Serbia if Milosevic would merely grant diplomatic recognition to his besieged neighbours. This capitulation brought Russia out of the cold and into open support of Serbia's demand for an unconditional suspension of sanctions.

Remarkably, the Administration policy's free fall was not over. Not to be out- appeased by London or out-capitulated by Paris, the Administration decided in April 1995 to restore the veneer of Contact Group unity by halting its pursuit of Bosnian recognition. Instead it focused its efforts on securing nothing more that an extension of the winter cease-fire.

Greater Serbia Unravels

Those in Europe and the United States with a desire to see the war end quickly then began to witness the unravelling of parts of Milosevic's new Greater Serbia. After tolerating more than three years of unhonoured commitments from the UN to end Serbian control over regions of Croatia, Zagreb launched spring and summer counter- offensives to recapture all of its territory except eastern Slavonia. It also accepted Sarajevo's request for assistance in saving the UN-declared 'safe area' of Bihac, which Britain, France and other UNPROFOR troop-contributing nations would not protect. The Bosnian and Croatian armies then liberated vast swathes of territory in central Bosnia. In the early autumn, the Bosnian Army's Fifth Corps, together with reinforcement from other units, headed for the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.

The Clinton Administration's response was not to pursue a just and sustainable peace settlement by at long last lifting the arms embargo to end the siege of Bosnia's remaining cities, or even merely by informing Zagreb of the United States' desire to see further Bosnian-Croatian cooperation in, for example, the liberation of Banja Luka. Rather, for the first time, it took the opportunity to try to halt the war and thereby freeze in place Serbia's remaining gains. To the Bosnian government it even made the remarkable representation that it possessed intelligence information demonstrating that further Bosnian Army counter-offensives would be thwarted by forces from Serbia itself. Even more remarkably, the Bosnian government accepted the reports at face value and agreed to a cease-fire.

Along with the diplomatic pressure on the Bosnian government in effect to surrender, and on Milosevic to bring his proxies to heel, the Administration acquiesced in accepting two key British and French policy preferences regarding a peace settlement: the Bosnian Serbs would have their own para-state - i.e. Bosnia would indeed be partitioned - and that para-state would include the overrun 'safe areas' of Srebrenica and Zepa in eastern Bosnia. By launching a late summer series of surgical, pinprick air strikes that momentarily interrupted the Bosnian Serbs' ability to wage war without doing any appreciable damage to their military assets and overall strategic position, the United States and its NATO allies then convinced the Serbian and Bosnian Serb leadership to accept the new, more favourable settlement.

The Dayton Accords of December 1995 were a triumph of American diplomacy and European policy. They halted the fighting quickly and efficiently through the introduction of massive numbers of foreign ground troops and weapons, thereby creating the satisfying illusion of an allied victory over the most brutal aggression in Europe since World War II. In fact, however, as Britain and France had advocated consistently throughout the crisis, Bosnia was being carved into two or three entities, and a Greater Serbia was being created. Despite the Administration's pledges to the contrary, the very forces and individuals who had prosecuted the genocidal war against Bosnia and its Muslim civilian population were given absolute control over half of its territory. Refugees were not allowed to return to their homes; 'ethnic cleaning' - this time officially sanctioned - continued; freedom of movement across the new, political frontlines dividing Bosnia remained a rarity; and only a handful of war criminals - but no Serbian political leaders - were indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal. It was a curious 'victory' for the West, indeed.

Americanizing the War

Cumulatively, the results of the Clinton Administration's litany of appeasement of Serbia and capitulation to Europe and Russia have been disastrous. They also make the Administration guilty of two of the very charges that they have repeatedly levelled against proponents of a stronger US Bosnia policy.

First, the Administration claimed throughout the conflict that more robust policies would 'Americanize' the war. Instead, it was weak Administration policies that gradually escalated American involvement. They dragged the United States into multi- billion-dollar military programmes that had little discernible effect on Serbian behaviour on the ground, that produced extraordinarily weak results, and that have culminated in the introduction of US ground troops to partition a UN-member state.

The United States' thirty-per-cent share in paying for largely ineffective UN and NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia should give a pause to this and future Administrations, and will surely give comfort to Democratic and Republican isolationists in the Congress and elsewhere. By the time the Dayton Accords were devised, the United States was paying $500 million annually for UNPROFOR, which had little or no chance of yielding a payoff in peace or regional stability. For this financial commitment the Administration enjoyed the satisfaction of supporting a mission that functioned as a peacekeeper where there was no peace to keep; subjected its troops to murder, shelling, sniping, kidnap, and detention by Bosnian Serb troops; and tolerated commanders who, for the sake of expediency, had re-defined their mandate to one of neutrality and mediation rather than a concentrated effort to feed the needy and support the withdrawal of Serbian forces.

In addition to UNPROFOR, the United States was the leading contributor to the billion-dollar enforcement of the no-fly zone which, even by the UN's own accounting, was violated more than four thousand times, resulted in the shootdown of only two planes, and did not stand in the way of Milosevic's constant re-supply by helicopter of his proxies in Bosnia and Croatia.

The United States was also the leading contributor to the Adriatic flotilla enforcing sanctions against Serbia and the arms embargo against all of the former Yugoslav republics. The US Congress outlawed participation in the latter in 1994, so that US ships could not intercept the passage of ships bearing arms for the Bosnian government. The Pentagon, however, approved rules of engagement that, in the event that a US ship were to have uncovered an arms shipment bound for Bosnia, would have made the discovery immediately apparent to other nearby NATO ships, which could then have moved immediately to seize the cache and impound the offending vessel. Call it 'Don't ask but tell.'

In addition to its ships in the Adriatic, the United States was the leading contributor to the border-monitoring mission along Serbia's frontier with Bosnia. Every thirty days the Administration acquiesced as David Owen and Thorwald Stoltenberg, under whose auspices the mission operated, certified the uncertifiable: that Serbia's borders with Bosnia were 'effectively closed'. The mission was in no position to make such claims. Its monitors could neither initiate their own inspections nor detain and turn back offenders - the two principal functions of border monitoring missions as proposed by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his 1993 recommendations. Even with these restrictions, however, monitors witnessed numerous violations, which they would 'raise with Serbian authorities' and then ignore. Between October 1994 and July 1995 they observed the following in transit from Serbia to Bosnia: 512 tanks, 506 armoured vehicles, 120 heavy mortars, 368 ammunition trucks, 14 artillery ammunition trucks, and 1.9 million gallons of fuel. As British journalist Ed Vulliamy reported, this was the mere 'tip of the iceberg'. The heads of the mission, of course, made no effort to see more by eliciting satellite or similar reconnaissance. This made it easier for them to claim in each of their reports that, based on what the 180 monitors along the 375-mile border had seen, and 'in the absence of any contrary information from the air', Milosevic was allowing only humanitarian aid to pass.

These annual expenditures in billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and incalculable amounts of American prestige and credibility were but the means to an extraordinary policy end sought by the Clinton Administration: the introduction of 60,000 US and other ground troops as part of an international apartheid police force that would ensure that non-Serbs remain inside a truncated Bosnia's redrawn borders.

The Russian Dimension

In the second place, the Administration claimed that more robust policies would weaken - if not topple - Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his struggle against nationalist, anti-democratic forces. Instead, it was the Administration's own policies that allowed nationalism to dominate a Russian foreign policy which had initially grown more reformist in both the 'near' and 'far' abroad. They gave Russia a vehicle by which it re-entered the foreign policy arena as a world power and asserted a territorial claim stretching to the borders of the former Soviet Union. And they enabled Russia to claim the former Yugoslavia as part of its sphere of influence. What had been open Russian support for numerous UN condemnations and full-scale political and economic sanctions against Belgrade during the Bush Administration gradually turned into at best grudging tolerance. Even more curious was Russia's emergence as a foreign policy influence in the former Yugoslavia. Denied this entree for fifty years by Marshall Tito's brand of non-aligned Communism, Moscow now forged a remarkable marriage of convenience with Belgrade. At little cost to either party, this partnership enabled Russia to return to foreign policy prominence beyond even the former Soviet Union borders. At the same time it gave President Milosevic diplomatic cover for his campaign to create a Greater Serbia. From Slovenia to Macedonia, Serbia's neighbours perceived this new marriage, quite rightly, as a destabilizing influence in the region.

It began in early 1993 when the Administration allowed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin to serve, on behalf of the United States and European powers, as a liaison with Belgrade. Churkin and his superiors in Moscow seized this opportunity initially to blunt the relatively tough (by today's standards) messages he was meant to deliver, and eventually to develop and exploit the special power that this gave them in determining Western policies. In the months after Moscow first assumed this liaison role, Russia argued against air strikes to stop the major Serbian assaults on Sarajevo, Gorazde, and Bihac; prevented the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe from making a simple statement condemning the Serbian assault on Bihac; called for UN and NATO action - including air strikes at one point - to prevent the Bosnian government from taking back Serb-occupied territory in the Bihac region; exercised its UN Security Council veto on a political issue (a resolution that would have condemned the ongoing flow of fuel to the Bosnian Serbs) for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union; openly backed Milosevic's demands that sanctions on Serbia be lifted unconditionally; attempted in a UN resolution to demand that Croatia give back territory it had re-captured from Serbian occupation forces; and, most recently, refused to agree to a memorandum of understanding to regulate IFOR's assistance to the UN War Crimes Tribunal.

In the process, Yeltsin's supposedly democratic and pro-Western foreign policies grew steadily more nationalist, confrontational and expansionist. Identifiable ultra-nationalist forces may have no more control over foreign policy than they did a year or two ago, but they do not have to: Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov is actively promoting their interest. Indeed, even as Secretary Christopher continued to hold hands with this Contact Group partner, Russia prosecuted a brutal, genocidal assault against its own civilians in Chechnya. Consistent in walking away, if nothing else, President Clinton labelled this one a Russian 'internal affair'.

Bowing to European 'Wisdom'

Throughout its tenure, the Clinton Administration placed an untenably high premium on 'allied unity', which is another way of saying capitulation to policies that European powers perceived to be in their national interests.

Britain and France rationalized their sway over the US Administration by claiming a superior knowledge and wisdom acquired over hundreds of years of dealing with the Balkans. Stand back and stand down, their argument went: it is best to contain the fighting and allow Serbia, the largest Balkan power, to exercise its rightful hegemony over the region. It is true, of course, that British and French history and the two countries' proximity may initially have supported their claim to some special status as arbiters. The fact is, however, that Europe's four-year record is one of failure. Anglo- French knowledge and wisdom, not for the first time in history, turned out to be fundamentally flawed. It is worth remembering that, in their active form, they brought us Munich, while in inaction they brought us Hitler's unchallenged invasions of the Rhineland and the Sudetenland.

The fact is that President Clinton and his key advisers never learnt to distinguish between sage European advice and political cant. Whether the conflict in Bosnia resumes, whether ultra-nationalism triumphs, whether the Bosnian state and its multi- ethnic identity are destroyed, and whether the policy and tactics of Serbian and Croatian supremacists are imitated beyond the Balkans, will be determined by whether he, or his successor, accepts the responsibility of leadership.

Marshall Freeman Harris is Executive Director of the Balkan Institute in Washington, DC. In 1993 he resigned from the US State Department to protest US inaction in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A longer version of this article will be appear in The Conceit of Innocence, a collection of essays edited by Stjepan Mestrovic to be published this autumn by Texas A&M UniversityPress.

.New York Times, 4 August 1992. .The opposite pattern was to emerge later, in 1993, when mid-level officers regularly presented top officials with military options that were rejected out of hand. In 1992 the presentation of less than a full range of options to Clinton's transition team prompted strong dissent by one senior official who concluded that the State Department had missed its most significant opportunity to educate its political leadership. . US Department of State Press Release, Secretary of State Warren Christopher's press conference and statement 'New Steps Toward Conflict Resolution in the Former Yugoslavia', 10 February 1993. . ibid. . Statement before US Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Subcommittees, 23 June 1994. . Reuters, 5 July 1994. . The mission's weak and unintrusive mandate had been negotiated by David Owen and Slobodan Milosevic. . Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 838 (1993), United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, UN Security Council Document 2/26018, 1 July 1993. .The Guardian, London, 29 February 1996.