Commentary Magazine

Bosnia: Is It Too Late?

Bosnia: Is it too Late?

Yes: Patrick Glynn
No: Eugene V. Rostow

Patrick Glynn: Almost no one doubts today that Bosnia has been a moral failure, for America and for the West. To have recognized this tiny republic as a sovereign state while denying it the means to defend itself—and to have stood by essentially passively as rampaging Serbs pursued a brutal war of aggression against their Muslim neighbors—these are sins of commission and omission for which both Europe and America must share the blame.

There was a time, as some of us once urged, when limited, relatively low-risk actions—a lifting of the arms embargo against the Bosnian government, a supply of arms, and a well-targeted use of NATO air power—might have been sufficient to curtail the Serbian program of “ethnic cleansing” and create the basis for a tense but sustainable peace in Bosnia. That time, however, is long past.

Today, unfortunately, it is no longer possible to talk about a simple lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia. The fact is that over the past two years, the situation on the ground—and in the politics surrounding the crisis—has fundamentally changed. Any attempt to reshape conditions in Bosnia at this late stage will require as a first step the insertion of tens of thousands of NATO and U.S. ground troops in the Balkans to remove the UN peacekeeping forces now stationed there. What we face, in other words, is no longer a range of limited, low-risk options. The choice we confront is rather one between the admittedly inadequate policies of the present and a full-scale U.S. intervention involving not only enormous risks and costs, but very uncertain prospects of success.

In international affairs, as in life, timing is everything. Between August 1992, when the first reports surfaced of Muslims perishing in Serbian concentration camps, until the end of the Bush administration, the United States had ample scope and power to act in Bosnia. Public opinion was deeply engaged by the suffering of the Muslims and the moral outrage of mass murder in the heart of Europe. America’s international prestige and military credibility under George Bush were at a high point. Serbs both in Bosnia and Belgrade worried hard about the possibility of U.S. intervention. And Bosnia’s ill-armed forces, while beleaguered, maintained a semblance of control over major population centers in the predominantly Muslim regions of the country.

During this period, I numbered among the most vocal advocates of limited but timely action,1 including a lifting of the arms embargo and selective use of air power against Serb forces—but never the insertion of American ground troops.

Since then, however, all has changed. Public opinion has become numbed to the suffering in Bihac and Sarajevo. Bush has been succeeded by a President lacking credibility in defense and foreign affairs. Serbs have become emboldened by a series of half-measures and empty threats from Western leaders. And Bosnia’s now somewhat better-armed government forces, while fighting on, have essentially lost control of their major population centers, which remain under the nominal protection of lightly armed UN peacekeeping troops.

In a sense, of course, one key to the problem of Bosnia has been, and continues to be, the UN presence. Ironically, when the first contingent of UN troops arrived in Sarajevo in the summer of 1992, they were greeted as heroes and saviors, the first hope the besieged city had experienced in weeks. And indeed, whatever the failures or sins of the UN mission in Bosnia, it has been responsible for a measure of order-keeping and the provision of humanitarian relief, without which the Bosnian civilian population would almost certainly have faced extermination. It is a fact, as defenders of the UN mission often state, that over the past three years the level of violence in Bosnia has greatly declined, owing partly of course to Serb satiation, but also to measures taken by NATO in conjunction with the UN. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the presence of the UN forces has operated from the start as the chief barrier to more decisive military action on behalf of the newly constituted Bosnian state.



Whether it was a mistake to send UN peacekeepers to Bosnia in the summer of 1992 will be left for historians to debate. Certainly, no other direct military action on behalf of beleaguered Bosnia was seriously contemplated in any major capital at the time, least of all in Washington. But once UN troops had arrived in Bosnia they became a serious factor to be dealt with in any proposed solution to the crisis; they have become even more so today.

The critical issue concerns the safety not merely of the UN peacekeepers themselves, but of the civilian populations now under their protection. In February 1994, Sarajevo was on the verge of strangulation; a few weeks later, Gorazde was ready to fall. Bosnian government forces, in short, were losing the ability to defend their major population centers. It was in this period, through a combination of coercive air power and diplomacy, and amid many disputes between NATO and the UN, that a measure of security was purchased for the so-called UN “safe areas,” including not only Sarajevo but such Bosnian towns as Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Bihac.

At present, the safety of the civilians in these major population centers of Bosnia, though admittedly uncertain, depends entirely upon the thin blue line of the UN presence. In the wake of a major, and probably ill-advised, Muslim offensive this past summer, Bihac has already come under heavy counterattack by the Serbs. Absent UN guarantees and troops, the rest of these population centers would inevitably be subject to renewed, intensified offensives by Serb forces, and most would almost certainly fall.

Those who have advocated a precipitous withdrawal of the UN contingent from Bosnia, like Senator William Cohen of Maine, as well as those who have advocated such a withdrawal followed by a unilateral U.S. abrogation of the arms embargo, like Senate majority leader Robert Dole, have tended to downplay or simply ignore the enormous risks that such a rash action would pose to U.S. and NATO troops responsible for effecting this withdrawal. If the U.S. lifts the arms embargo, American servicemen and women would arrive on the ground in Bosnia not as representatives of an ostensibly neutral international force, but as allies of one of the belligerents in the war. The likelihood of attacks on American troops—not slight in any case—would vastly increase. (American troops could conceivably be sent in smaller numbers to the Balkans anyway, to assist in withdrawing UN peacekeepers from Croatia.)

Beyond all this, a host of rudimentary military questions about executing the lifting of the embargo remain unanswered, or even, in some cases, unasked. First, and most urgent, is the question of how civilians in the UN safe areas will be protected once UN troops are removed. Here air power is often brought forth as a panacea.

To be sure, there is much that can be done with air power, including attacks on Serbian weapons caches, bridges, supply lines, and large, exposed pieces of equipment. But most experts agree that air power alone cannot halt a land advance. Bosnia’s Serbs have stockpiled vast quantities of weapons and ammunition; it will be impossible to destroy all of them. And when it comes to close air support, planners and pilots will have to cope with mountainous, often heavily forested terrain, iffy weather, and the grave risk of collateral civilian casualties. Then there is the simple practical issue of when the U.S. air campaign would begin—after American troops have departed, or while they are still on the ground and vulnerable? This is to say nothing of the dollar cost of such potentially massive air operations.

There are other, all-too-basic questions to be addressed. How, in fact, do we plan to supply arms to the Bosnians? Some major U.S. ground presence in Croatia, if not in Bosnia itself, will certainly be necessary. Do we wish to be deeply involved with, and dependent upon, Croatia in this undertaking, given the authoritarian predilections and poor human-rights record of its government? Will we have to send U.S. advisers to Bosnia to train Bosnian forces in the use of the arms? If we fly Bosnian troops to some third-country location for training, will there not be a rather long lag between the lifting of the embargo and any positive effects on the battlefield? If we supply high-tech weaponry, is it not a certainty that some of it will find its way into the hands of some of the Bosnian Muslims’ less savory allies-of-convenience in the Middle East?

It is also worth remembering the basic strategic point that Bosnian forces, albeit better-armed, will have not simply the task of defending terrain but the enormous, perhaps ultimately impossible, task of retaking Bosnia’s population centers against well-motivated and well-armed Serb defenders—unless of course U.S. troops have somehow assumed responsibility for the protection of the safe areas in the interim.



Here the question raised so often at the Pentagon these days resonates: what if it doesn’t work? What if, having made Bosnia America’s cause, and having completely engaged American air power and prestige, we discover that the Bosnian government army is failing to gain or even is losing ground? How deeply are we willing to go in our involvement? Bombing Serbia proper? Bombing Belgrade? Sending troops to fight side by side with Bosnians? There is a potential Vietnam-like logic to this involvement, which promises to take us deeper and deeper into war without necessarily providing victory in the end.

The problem is certain to be compounded by the condition of acute, truly unprecedented, diplomatic isolation in which we would undertake this great effort. Rightly or wrongly, Britain and France adamantly oppose lifting the embargo, seeing it only as a trigger to a far wider and more violent Balkan war. These countries and Russia will oppose any effort to repeal the currently applicable resolutions in the Security Council.

So we would begin our great undertaking, in all likelihood, with the unprecedented act of deliberately violating UN Security Council resolutions for which we originally voted. International lawyers may quibble about the interpretation and constitutionality (vis-à-vis Article 51 of the UN Charter) of the applicable Security Council resolutions. (The language extending the arms embargo, originally imposed on Yugoslav republics, to sovereign Bosnia is less than clear, and the resolution seems to violate the spirit of Article 51, which guarantees each sovereign nation the fundamental right to self-defense.) But the fact remains that we have accepted the consensus interpretation up till now. It is going to look strange, to put it mildly, if the United States attempts to Philadelphia-lawyer its way into a new interpretation of the resolutions that is 180-degrees opposed to its present one.

The alternative, of course, would be the first open violation of Security Council resolutions by an American government—an extremely hazardous precedent and one which, as the present administration has so often argued, threatens to undercut embargoes against Iraq and Libya that touch on our vital interests.

Beyond that, having dealt an unprecedentedly grave blow to our relations with Britain and France, and having split NATO, we would be far from assured of access to NATO air bases for our planned operations in Bosnia. Indeed, I believe American advocates of discarding NATO would pretty much have achieved their goal; it would be hard to salvage the alliance in the wake of such an open breach. Without access to NATO air bases, an air campaign in Bosnia would be difficult, to put it mildly.

This is to say nothing of our relations with Russia, far from smooth at present but still critical to long-term global security. It seems unlikely that Russia would become engaged in a major confrontation with the United States over Bosnia and Serbia—the Russians have too many other problems—but one can expect some very rough riding along the way. Russia would no doubt feel compelled to provide further military equipment to the Serbs in order to counter American weapons. And the perceived insult to Russian policy and prestige in the Balkans would almost certainly play into the hands of those in Russia who distrust and hate the West and who wish to turn that great country in an openly anti-Western and fascistic direction.

In other words, a vast array of concerns ultimately far more vital to our basic interests would have to be cast aside or actively put in jeopardy as we embark on this policy. We would be betting the mortgage on Bosnia.



Some of course would still argue that the moral and international legal principles of guaranteeing the inviolability of borders (albeit of a state whose early international recognition was probably ill-advised) and of punishing aggression as well as war crimes, including possible genocide, demand a robust U.S. response. When such a response would have been timely and effective, I was wholly in agreement. But today these legitimate moral and geopolitical considerations must be weighed not only against the vast military and political hazards of belated intervention, including the hazard of total failure, but also against the moral dubiousness of exposing tens of thousands more civilians—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—as well as NATO and American troops, to injury, death, and abuse in a uselessly reignited, widened war.

Current Western diplomacy in this crisis—a diplomacy, increasingly, of ineffectual appeasement of Serbia—is not pretty and may not succeed in preventing a reescalation and widening of the struggle. America, willy-nilly, may still be drawn in on the ground. But given the unholy complexities of what is at bottom a senseless civil war in a land now awash with unfathomable ethnic hatreds, the present goals of the diplomats—lessening of violence, protection of civilians, provision of relief, containment of the war, and, possibly, some sort of negotiated end to it all—seem to me the only rational course. Three years ago, we might have done something decisive and effective in Bosnia. Today it is simply too late.



Eugene V. Rostow: Thanks to President François Mitterrand of France, who has proposed a summit meeting of the main protagonists of the war in what was once Yugoslavia, the United States and its allies have received a gift almost unprecedented in the history of diplomacy: an opportunity to correct their mistakes—in this case, the mistakes they have been making steadily for nearly three years in allowing what began as a minor local quarrel in the Balkans to become a major threat to the general peace.

The basic reason for the failure of the negotiations to end the war is extremely simple. George Bush and Bill Clinton both announced publicly that while we were willing to use air power to facilitate agreement, we would not commit ground forces to that end. Yet to instruct ambassadors to negotiate peace in the midst of an active war without the influence of adequate military force behind them violates the first principle of diplomacy (and of common sense) and is a cruel and unusual punishment for the poor ambassadors, to boot. There is, however, good reason for optimism about the outcome if President Clinton respects this principle in the new round of negotiations to be initiated by President Mitterrand’s recent call.

There are three possible procedures that could be used in carrying out the French plan: a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council; a special meeting of the UN Security Council; or simply a conference of the interested powers, in the style of the 19th-century “Congresses” of the Concert of Europe, the most successful peacekeeping experiment since the end of the Roman empire.

Since any serious procedure for making peace at this point will require the visible determination of the major powers to use ample force if necessary in behalf of the settlement, the choice among possible procedures is not in itself crucial to the possibility of success in the negotiations. But from the point of view of American policy, the preferred course would be to hold the conference in a NATO setting. It is an illusion to imagine that the UN Security Council can conduct a peace-enforcement action where serious hostilities may be necessary. This has never been done or even attempted, and there are no grounds for supposing that the Security Council is better equipped to undertake the responsibility now than has been the case for the last 50 years.2

On the other hand, the combined forces of NATO were trained to face down and, if necessary, to defeat the Red Army at the peak of its formidable powers. They could surely deal with Serbia. In doing so, moreover, NATO would be acting in accordance with three resolutions, the Harmel Resolution on Future Tasks adopted in 1967, and the two resolutions it adopted during 1991 and 1992—one at Oslo, the other at Glen-eagles in Scotland—in response to the end of the Soviet Union and the political turbulence to be expected in the wake of that volcanic event. These resolutions declare the interest of NATO in the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic land mass, and they provide a firm legal and political foundation for the use of the alliance as the principal instrument for countering aggression in and near Europe.



The present state of the conventional wisdom on Bosnia among the major powers was summed up perfectly by Lord Peter Carrington, a consummate and quintessential member of the international establishment. When asked by an interviewer whether there was a British national interest in Bosnia, he answered, “Plainly there isn’t.”

Both President Bush and President Clinton have similarly said that the war in Bosnia does not yet affect the national interest of the United States. But the national interest of the United States cannot be so narrowly defined.

I recently made a study of the national-security interests of the United States—the interests worth fighting for even in the nuclear age. I concluded that the supreme national interest of the United States was and necessarily would remain the successful management of the state system as a system of peace. That goal could only be sought by the cooperation of the major powers acting in accordance with the norms enunciated for our time in the Charter of the United Nations. The rule against aggression, understood as the greatest possible danger to political stability and hence to general peace, is the key provision of the United Nations Charter, and the key lesson of diplomatic experience since 1815. Another key lesson, confirmed by 20th-century experience with war, is that here as elsewhere in law, duty arises from circumstance; and since only the strong have the capacity to keep the peace, they also have the duty to do so.

This duty is acknowledged by Lord Carrington in connection with the war in Bosnia, but only if that war spreads beyond the boundaries of the defunct state of Yugoslavia. Thus, when pressed by the interviewer’s question, “If there is no British interest, nor French, then who is going to keep the peace?,” Lord Carrington responded that the European interest probably consisted of making sure that the war was contained within the former Yugoslavia’s borders. If it spread outside, “we would be bound to intervene against the aggressor.”

The reasoning here derives from the belief that Serbia has already won the war; that the Bosnians must be made to accept their defeat and the end of their national hopes; and that they must also be made to accept Greater Serbia as the inevitable outcome.

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, speaking in London, recently reminded the British Foreign Minister that this reasoning closely resembled the argument made by American opponents of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941. France had surrendered in 1940; Britain had gone through Dunkirk and faced an apparently hopeless military situation. The American advocates of preemptive capitulation, like Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, were urging Britain to follow France’s example, for the sake of “peace.” Even with American Lend-Lease help, they contended, further British resistance could only prolong the war without affecting its outcome. Led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, and driven by a strong tide in American public opinion, Congress rejected the counsel of defeat and passed the Lend-Lease Act.

In the Balkans, the time has come to reject similar counsels of defeat and to begin pursuing negotiations visibly and convincingly based on the threat of adequate force. As things now stand, the prospect is for more war, worse war, and spreading war (perhaps involving Greece, Turkey, and Albania) when the present cease-fire comes to an end. The risks in the situation for the NATO allies and for the other nations of the region are considerable, and certainly worth substantial exertion to anticipate and head off. After all, if, as Lord Carrington concedes, armed intervention will be necessary in the event that the war spreads, would it not be better to intervene with lesser force now to prevent the worst from happening later?

What the NATO allies—along with Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—should do now is to recognize that the Great Power policy for Bosnia has failed, and start over on a concerted program to defeat and undo the Serbian (and Croatian) aggression which is the cause of the Balkan tragedy; to make the resumption of such aggression impossible; and to try to achieve the old dream of a Balkan federation which the Allies failed to establish at Versailles in 1919.

There is another and most important dimension of the American interest in the Balkans: our interest in helping to make sure the unstable system of weak states in that part of the world does not evolve in ways which could permit a new and hostile combination to dominate the whole of Europe. A number of hypothetical scenarios for the next 50 years would raise that warning flag. Perhaps the least remote among them is that of a German-Russian combination for joint control of the European heartland. The idea of a Russo-German military alliance has been popular for at least two centuries in the imperialist circles of both countries. Its most recent manifestations were the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, through which the Soviet Union made a separate peace with Germany; the Rapallo Treaty of 1922, establishing a secret military alliance between the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic; and the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, the opening move of World War II. Germany, of course, is now anchored to the West by nearly 50 years of constructive participation in NATO and the European movement. The future orientation of Russia and Eastern Europe is by no means so assured. Prudent Western policy should therefore take pains to make sure that neither country is exposed to the imperial temptation again.



For nearly three years, the NATO allies and the permanent members of the Security Council have been hiding behind patently erroneous interpretations of international law in order to excuse their failure to restore and maintain peace in the small but volatile corner of Europe which used to be Yugoslavia. The war going on there is not, as they have claimed, a civil war, because Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been widely recognized as independent states; most of them have been admitted to the United Nations. Yet even if it really were a civil war, the United Nations Charter (Article 2 [7]) acknowledges that an event (like a civil war), which would normally be characterized as within the domestic jurisdiction of a state, can also be a breach of international peace, and treated accordingly under Chapter VII of the Charter.

This war, surely, is quite as much a threat to the general peace as the one which began in Korea in 1950. The Korean war was also described by many at the time as a civil war. And South Korea, too, was at first thought to be outside the sphere of American interests. Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had made a remark which was interpreted by the Soviets as an “invitation” to unleash a North Korean invasion of the South. But President Truman decided to intervene—a decision that turned out to be the defining application of Western containment policy, and the greatest and most difficult single achievement of his lustrous term of office. It remains the model of what Western policy should be in response to significant aggression.

Like Lord Carrington, both President Bush and President Clinton have failed to explain how their warning (“we want a better peace plan, but we will not use American ground forces to achieve it”) could be expected to deter the Serbian armed forces, or anybody else. In 1950, the U.S. Air Force advised Truman that it could stop the North Korean invasion of South Korea with air power alone. Truman, who had been an artillery captain in World War I, and the conscientious chairman of the Senate Committee on the Conduct of World War II, knew better.

The sensible course ahead for the U.S. and its allies in ex-Yugoslavia is thus clear. It is the policy of President Truman, not that of President Carter or President Clinton. Truman’s policy does not make the United States the world’s only policeman. Nor does it imply that every breach of the peace requires armed intervention as a remedy. The Roman maxim, De minimis non curat lex (“The law does not concern itself with trifles”) still applies, just as it did, for example, when India annexed the Portuguese city-state of Goa some 30 years ago without provoking a response from the UN and without any significant disturbance of world public order.

Truman’s policy, however, does acknowledge that aggression can be deterred and that peace can be kept only by a coalition of the strong powers like the 19th-century Concert of Europe. In the post-Soviet world order now taking shape, only such a coalition of the strong can be effective, and only if it is led by the strongest of the strong. To provide this leadership is in the highest national interest of the United States.



Many people, including a number who—like Patrick Glynnformerly supported at least some degree of armed intervention into the war in Bosnia by the United States and its NATO allies, and who continue to see that war as an act of Serbian aggression, have by now concluded that such a policy would at this point do more harm than good. Eugene V. Rostow is among those who strongly disagree with this position, arguing that there is still a chance to do what they believe we should have done from the beginning in response to the Serbian aggression.


1 See my “The Age of Balkanization,” COMMENTARY, July 1993.

2 Many believe that the

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