America and Bosnia

America and Bosnia

Mini Teaser:  The American government badly needs to break the mold it has set for   itself and pledge its power to a definitive settlement.

by Author(s): Robert W. TuckerDavid C. Hendrickson

The war in Bosnia has occasioned the first significant debate over
foreign policy of the post-Cold War period. It has thereby done what
the war against Iraq did not do. The short-lived debate that attended
armed intervention in the Persian Gulf resembled in most respects the
debate attending armed intervention in the last decade or so of the
Cold War. All that was missing was the Cold War itself, and thus the
risk of armed conflict with the Soviet Union. In Congress, an
interventionist Republican party was pitted against a
non-interventionist Democratic party. In the broader public debate,
those urging war against Iraq were those who had supported armed
intervention on earlier occasions, while those who opposed going to
war were those who had opposed resorting to force on these same

In the case of Bosnia, the identity of the participants has changed.
In Congress the debate over whether to pursue an interventionist
course has not followed party lines. The Democrats can no longer be
identified with an anti-interventionist position. The same is true of
a number of public figures who had once been reliably
anti-interventionist. Indeed, some of the most insistent criticism of
both the Bush and Clinton administrations for failing to give
military support to the Bosnian Muslims has come from those whose
anti-interventionist disposition had long been taken for granted.
Thus what Senator Joseph Biden has come to symbolize for the liberal
democrats in Congress, Anthony Lewis has come to symbolize for
liberal expression in the media.

The debate over America's course in the Balkans has also aroused the
emotions and passions of participants in a way the earlier debate
over war in the Gulf did not. There is an intensity of feeling over
Bosnia that was not apparent over Kuwait. It may be seen in the
heightened rhetoric that has become almost commonplace among critics
of the American government's "failure" to date to come to the aid of
Bosnia's beleaguered Muslims. For this failure, Leslie Gelb has
written, "Bosnian Muslims will pay with their lives, and Americans
with their faith." The loss of our soul, it is argued, will be
matched by the sacrifice of the nation's vital interests. Albert
Wohlstetter has found in our recent record in the Balkans "the worst
performance of the democracies since World War II-and the most
dangerous." One must go back to the debate over Vietnam to find
statements of comparable intensity.

Although the war in Bosnia has aroused such strong emotions and
passions, it has not evoked comparable appeals for the sacrifice of
blood and treasure. With very few exceptions, those who have called
for American intervention have been careful to emphasize the quite
modest costs they are willing to pay in intervening. While insistent
that the interests at stake in Bosnia are very great, they are
equally insistent that these interests be secured at modest cost.

The debate over Bosnia has thus been marked by a disjunction between
interests avowed and costs rejected. It has also been marked by a
view of the war's origins that must yield a distorted picture of the
interests that are at stake. The conflict is not, as it has been so
often depicted, a conventional case of aggression by one state
(Serbia) against another (Bosnia). The insistence upon seeing its
origins in these terms must distort its true nature, obscure the
objectives of an intervention, and lead to a view of the interests at
stake in the war that is misleading and unpersuasive. It is not the
repelling of aggression as such, nor the maintenance of that
ill-defined abstraction known as "world order," that constitute the
interests at stake in Bosnia. Neither is it the need to appease a
Muslim world that, in the absence of western intervention in Bosnia,
stands ready to succor Bosnia's Muslims. The great interest at stake
in Bosnia is neither more nor less than order and stability in
post-Cold War Europe. If a persuasive case cannot be made on these
grounds, it probably cannot be made at all.

Origins and Interpretations

Despite the complex and tangled history of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
the origins of the war in that republic of Yugoslavia proceeded from
causes that were not inordinately complex. The true cause of the war
was the structure of reciprocal fears that existed within Bosnia on
the eve of the conflict. Each group feared domination by others, and
not unreasonably so. For the Muslims, the prior secession of Croatia
and Slovenia had left them, in effect, as members of a Greater
Serbia, and they not unnaturally feared that their interests would
suffer badly in a rump Yugoslavia dominated by the Serbs. In such an
eventuality, the repressive acts that the Serbs had committed in
Kosovo might be duplicated in Bosnia; and independence appeared as
the only escape from this fearful prospect. The Serbs reasoned in
essentially the same way. As part of Yugoslavia, their interests
would be secure; as a minority in a unitary Bosnian state dominated
by the Muslims, they foresaw a repetition, at best, of the
discrimination they had suffered in Kosovo when its status was
elevated in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution-and, at worst, of the
horrors they had suffered during World War II when Bosnia formed part
of the Nazi supported Croatian Ustasha state.

The Croatians, for their part, wanted out of Yugoslavia for the same
reason that the Muslims did, and wanted out of Bosnia for reasons not
dissimilar to those of the Serbs. Their vote for independence in the
March 1992 referendum, as Alexsa Djilas has observed, did not betoken
support for a unitary Bosnian state; on the contrary, their exit from
Yugoslavia was the means by which they might gain entry into newly
independent Croatia. Their attitude was an ominous portent, because
it meant that a majority of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina,
and the best armed part at that, was opposed to the creation of this
new state. The Serbs and Croats in Bosnia had the support of the two
nationalities that had traditionally contended for dominance in
Yugoslavia. From the beginning, it was evident that the independence
of Bosnia and Herzegovina could only be secured if it could muster
large-scale support from the international community.

There is nothing mysterious about the calculations of the three
national groups. Each group nursed historic grievances, some more
recent than others, but all of which were felt with passionate
intensity. The utter incompatibility of their respective interests
was such that war was far and away the most likely outcome of
Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia. Indeed, one needs hardly to
invoke the notorious tribal hatreds and violent propensities of the
Balkan peoples to account for the war, for secession has nearly
always in history been attended with armed violence. It was so on the
two occasions when it was attempted in our own experience as a nation
(in 1776 and 1860). Daniel Webster's famous assertion in
1850--"Peaceful secession, Sir! Your eyes and mine are destined never
to see that miracle"-stated a fact applicable not only to the
American Union but to the normal experience of all states, which
hardly allowed any other conclusion but that secession was and would
ever be an act of war. The experience of the Soviet Union should not
mislead us on this score, for the peaceful breakup of a state is far
more the exception than the rule-a miracle, at odds with the normal
course of events.

The origins of the Bosnian war are thus relatively simple. What is
exceedingly complex is how the descent into savage fighting might
have been averted; still more difficult is how the war, once started,
might have been-and might yet be-stopped. That the policy which was
adopted, in all its twists and turns, has been an utter failure is a
point that need hardly be labored. The role played by the Western
powers in attempting to put an end to the war has many critics but
few defenders. The judgment that historians will reach about the
diplomatic record of the past two years will doubtless be tempered by
the sheer intractability of the problems that were faced, but that it
will be a harsh one seems altogether likely.

In assessing the role played by the United States in attempting to
put an end to the war, attention must first be drawn to the way in
which the American government interpreted the origins of the
conflict, for this interpretation dictated in critical respects its
diplomatic posture. The American government's explanation stressed
that the war was caused above all by Serbian aggression. The
indictment rested fundamentally not on the violations of the laws of
war that the Serbs have undoubtedly committed on a lavish scale, but
on the decision to use force in the first place. In the U.S. view,
the war itself was a crime. Although the Serbs' violations of jus in
bello have been seen to confirm and compound their violation of jus
ad bellum, the presumed existence of the aggression itself has played
a decisive role in shaping the policy of the U.S. government. The
assumption, moreover, that the war has been one of Serbian aggression
has been generally accepted in the United States; the debate over
intervention has not fundamentally turned over the existence of
aggression against an internationally recognized state, but over the
potential costs of U.S. military action to reverse it.

Essay Types: Essay