Into the Shooting Gallery

Into the Shooting Gallery

Mini Teaser: Putting NATO at risk in order to carry out a dubious mission in Bosnia, for the sake of repaired reputation and not real interests, constitutes a political gamble of the first order.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog,
Betwixt Damatia and Mount Casius old,
Where armies whole have sunk
. . . .
--John Milton, Paradise Lost II, 592-4

When I contemplate Clinton administration policies toward the Balkans and NATO, what comes to mind is M.C. Escher's maddening line sketch of flights of connected castle staircases, drawn to produce perfect ambiguity as to whether a pedestrian climbing them would be ascending or descending. Viewed from one angle, the President appears going up, and then suddenly, without any apparent discontinuity, on the next level going down. But always he looks to be a bit lost.

There is a dimensional dementia to U.S. policy in Europe, a chronic inability to gauge the scale of the issues or see the connections between them. The result so far has been contradictory signals to the warring parties, to allies, and to Russia, as well as political embarrassment at home and squandered credibility abroad. The same debilities may soon produce dead American soldiers.

While the Bush administration saw the Bosnian issue too large, the collapse of Yugoslavia representing an ominous precedent for the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration has seen it too small for the most part, as a moral and humanitarian issue narrowly focused on the nature of the fighting itself. But, for the United States, the war should never have been mainly about Russia or Bosnia; it should have been about Europe.

Given that NATO's most salient raison d'tre had disappeared with Soviet communism, it should have been obvious that the next European crisis, wherever and whatever it was, would raise the question of NATO's future. But the Balkans proved a deceivingly ambiguous place. For America, it was a region beyond its interests, one that for forty years had been marginal to its grand strategy. For European members of NATO, the Bosnian war was more than merely out-of-area, it was a demonic visitation from another century, a nineteenth-century land-grab fueled by Balkan nationalisms long thought suffocated by the sodden pillow of Titoism. For all the allies it was a ghoulish, primitive war, neither so trivial that it could be ignored, nor so important that it compelled decisive intervention at a cost in blood and treasure.

Nonetheless, Bosnia created a demand, however unwelcome, for American statesmen to forge both the rhetoric and the reality of the post-Cold War American role in Europe. NATO might have been thrown early on into the Balkan breech, partly to prepare the expansion of the alliance into a more inclusive European security system. That would have risked much but would have had a geostrategic rationale. Or, on the other hand, the allies might have decided to quote Bismarck and ignore the Balkans, at least until the dust settled in Russia and a better defined appreciation of East-Central Europe's future came into focus.

But the opportunity to make a clear choice was missed; the thinking being done about Europe was instead concentrated on the question of NATO expansion and the many serious aspects of Russian opposition to it, most notably the effect rapid expansion might have on the prospects for a democratic and non-imperial Russian future. Bosnia, somehow, was seen through a very different lens. For the Americans, oriented toward domestic issues, bent on affirming United Nations-style multilateralism, and interpreting Bosnia through a self-indulgent but timid moralism, three mutually contradictory policy impulses competed: support for a unitary multiethnic Bosnian state; a desire to end the war and suffering; and a refusal to involve itself on the ground either to ensure the first or force the second. And thus up Escher's stairs and back down went the Clinton administration over and over again.

West European governments had their own problems. While some French strategists and many of Brussels's bureaucrats initially savored the prospect of a wholly European foreign policy experience, this enthusiasm soon gave way to general paralysis. Suspended between a reluctance to use force and public demands that "something be done", they tried to do "something" impossible: to intervene apolitically in order to relieve civilian suffering in a political war in which clear distinctions between civilians and combatants did not exist. Our European allies, too, found themselves going up and coming down stairs--some dying in the process--and without any obvious way to escape the infernal picture.
In different ways, then, both the United States and its NATO allies sunk into the self-wrought hell of half-measures. Wanting desperately to avoid decisions carrying real risks, American and European statesmen--using the word loosely--unwittingly created the greatest risk of all: the specter of abject failure on a comparatively minor issue at the outset of a new era, and before the astonished eyes of the entire world. Faced with such embarrassment, the allies then stumbled into truly grievous error: they dragged NATO into the bog, for all the wrong reasons. Rather than seeing NATO's future as a key measure of its Balkan policy from the start, the allies turned to the alliance in panic and, having invoked it, could then not agree on what it should do. The deeper NATO was drawn politically into the Balkans the more ineffectual it became, and the more its reputation suffered.

It is thus misleading to characterize NATO's entry into Bosnia as an unemployed alliance eagerly seeking out-of-area tasks to replace in-area ones now obsolete. It is also strange to argue retrospectively, as Robert Kagan has done, that just because troops from some NATO countries served as UNPROFOR "peacekeepers", the Balkans was an inevitable battlefield test of NATO's future from the start. No such clarity or driving determinism applied to American or NATO policy; there was real choice, though all of the alternatives were unattractive in one way or another. Certainly, Bosnia did not have to be a stage for those seeking the moral equivalent of the Cold War in order to justify American activism in a new era. Had American statesmen possessed a sense of what they wished for post-Cold War Europe, they could have defined the Balkan crisis to concord best with American interests. But instead of interests defining the crisis, they let the crisis define U.S. interests. As a result, American policymakers have found themselves worrying over second order issues--whether to bomb; whether to lift the arms embargo; whether to unleash the Croatians--that bear little on the future of NATO or of American power in Europe.

The paucity of geopolitical reasoning in U.S. policy is well illustrated by the stunning lack of connection between official discussions of Bosnia on the one hand and of NATO expansion on the other. In the selfsame week during February 1994, for instance, administration officials worried about the effects of expanding NATO on the tender shoots of Russian democracy even as they calmly contemplated dropping bombs on Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia--the cultural and historical, if not strategic, allies of those Russians they were so concerned to lead along the path of democratic virtue. The compartmentalization of European issues applies also to those who have favored sending NATO ground forces into Bosnia to stop the slaughter, but who have opposed the expansion of NATO. They want the alliance to act as if it were a European collective security system while opposing bringing it into a geopolitical posture to do so effectively. Such contradictory impulses can be entertained simultaneously only because they are thought to be about different problems. But they are about the same problem: the security and stability of Europe.

Clinton administration principals have lately begun speaking about the Balkans in larger terms--indeed, exceedingly large terms. The reason is that, for the better part of three years, they promised that U.S. troops would not be sent into the perilous Balkans; as the President himself put it so graphically: "We don't want our people in there, basically in a shooting gallery." Now the administration is proposing to do precisely that, and it needs a reason to justify its reversal. So what is it to be?

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott tells us, with a surety befitting a bureaucrat facing a hard sell, that: "History and geography have conspired to make Bosnia the most explosive powderkeg on the continent of Europe. Such a conflagration could all too easily spread well beyond the Balkans. Albania could intervene to protect the Albanians who live in the Serbian southern province of Kosovo. Warfare there could unleash a massive flow of refugees into Macedonia . . . potentially drawing in . . . on opposite sides Greece and Turkey."

Having mentioned NATO countries, Talbott adds ominously: "A continuation of the war would threaten the viability, and I would say even the survival, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization." If this were not enough, Talbott concluded: "If the war in the Balkans is reignited, it could spark a wider conflict like those that drew American soldiers into Europe in huge numbers twice this century." Up the stairs we go again.

Thus an administration that for years saw Bosnia as too small and peripheral to justify serious intervention now sees it as so large that the fate of the Western world turns on it. Are we really to believe that, while three years of American military passivity risked none of the calamities listed by Talbott, a failure to stop the war now courts catastrophe on the scale of World War II? If Talbott is right, why were we not in the thick of things with decisive force long ago? But he isn't right. In both 1914 and 1939, great imperial powers were locked tight in the Balkans, but in 1991 the only two powers that mattered had the good sense (or good luck) not to be. Talbott's loose journalism, filled with its frightful "coulds" and "mights", mocks the crucial difference between what is possible in politics and what is probable. Meant to shock in one sense, it is truly shocking in another. It is so much slack rhetoric posing as analysis.

The administration's use of such billowy language to describe the Bosnian crisis is as pernicious as past diminutions--more so if hundreds of American soldiers end up dying as a result. The administration's sudden enthusiasm for "saving" NATO by using it to intervene in Bosnia is particularly troubling. Having seen the apparent saluatory effect of NATO bombing this past summer, it presumes that policing a settlement in Bosnia will be manageable and the payoff substantial both for NATO and the administration. Defense Secretary William Perry told Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post in late September that he wants a NATO force in Bosnia in order to rebuild the alliance's besmirched image. NATO cannot be "rebuilt", he believes, without a strong, committed American force, and "the failure to do that would lead to a dramatic weakening and maybe even the dissolution of NATO." (September 28, 1995)

This same point has since been repeated often by administration spokesmen, but it is twice wrong. Not only is bivouacking NATO in Bosnia a high risk operation amid a house-of-cards peace diplomacy, but it misconstrues what the alliance always was and remains about. NATO's future depends on its retaining a shield against the possible recrudescence of a Russian military threat, insuring German political integration in Europe, and keeping the United States a European power to the general benefit of all concerned--nowadays not necessarily in that order. It does not depend on what happens in Bosnia and it never has. Again we return to the use of words, for good or ill: If the United States insists on valuing NATO's future in Balkan coinage, despite history and common sense, it risks creating a self-fulfilling intellectual misdirection that demeans the importance of the alliance and truly jeopardizes its future.

NATO should have walked away from Bosnia from the start, and shut up about it as well--but it didn't. Whereas few interests were involved then, many are involved now. The present difficulty lies in knowing whether to plunge NATO into the heart of the trouble hoping to emerge triumphant, or, even at this late date, to cut our loses, putting our faith in the brevity of the human memory for pain and error--one of God's many tokens of compassion to mankind.

Many favor the first course, adding as rationale that even imprudent (and, by now, mistrusted) presidential promises must be kept, and that the United States can hardly withhold support from a diplomatic settlement brokered by its own hand. But the passions let loose by this barbaric war, the volume of fresh spilt blood, the psychiatric character of some of the main actors, and the persisting differences of view among America's main European allies all tag Bosnia as a poor place to wager NATO's future. It is not a propitious battlefield environment either, should matters come to that, as well they may, for the paper pact sealed in Dayton on November 21 has left many important issues vague or unresolved in order to win all-party approval.

Sending NATO deeper into Milton's "Serbonian bog" is therefore at least as likely to harm the alliance as to help it. If, once undertaken, such a mission were to succeed, NATO's stabilizing role might be strengthened and primed for enlargement. But should it fizzle or fail, there would be hell to pay far beyond the Balkans, and well into the next century. Specifically, if NATO is bloodied militarily and denied diplomatically in Bosnia, then prospects for the eastward expansion of the alliance--all in the fullness of time and with a palliated Russia serving as stern but consenting witness--will be gravely injured. NATO expansion is, after all, not mainly about Russia; it is about preventing Eastern and Central Europe from becoming a devil's playground of local and Russo-German intrigue that could end by pulling Germany from its European mooring and driving the American presence from the continent. Such a turn of events is the most plausible scenario for a major deterioration of European security--even of Talbottian scale.

The bloody failure of a NATO intervention in Bosnia would provide a vivid demonstration of the potential costs of accepting a clutch of new countries into the alliance in the not remote future. Like it or not, NATO expansion into East-Central Europe means having to palliate the ethnic conflicts in which the region is so rich; it is like inviting not one but several Greek-Turkish couplets into NATO's rhyme. Unless it is exorbitant, such a price is worth paying for the stabilization of Central Europe, but it will seem exorbitant indeed if a parade of bodybags and reams of emetic full-color war-footage are, in the main, what come home from the Balkans.

This is why putting NATO at risk in order to carry out a dubious mission in Bosnia, for the sake of repaired reputation and not real interests, constitutes a political gamble of the first order. Despite disagreement about what to do, can we not at least agree on the true gravity of the issue?

Essay Types: Essay