Rethinking the Bosnia Bargain

Report Europe

Rethinking the Bosnia Bargain

October 15, 1996 21 min read Download Report
John Hillen
Bradley Fellow in Education Policy

Map: Current Implementation Force (IFOR) Deployment
Table: Recommended Force Levels for IFOR II and Future Operations in Bosnia


For the past nine months, over 35,0001 members of America's armed forces have been deployed as part of the NATO implementation force in Bosnia (IFOR). These soldiers were sent to the Balkans to enforce the military provisions of the Dayton Peace Accord of November 1995. President Bill Clinton, in an address to the nation on November 27, 1995, told the American people that the mission "should and will take about one year."2 The House and Senate subsequently adopted resolutions expressing reluctant support for the Bosnia mission and authorizing the deployment of U.S. troops specifically for this one-year period.

However, recent press reports revealed that the Clinton Administration plans to deploy at least 5,000 new GIs to Bosnia in a "covering force" mission that would last at least until March 1997.3 Administration officials defending the surprise move stressed the unstable and dangerous situation in Bosnia as the cause for deployment. In the meantime, NATO has called for a continued military presence in Bosnia (what has been called a "stabilization force").

Administration officials have refused to define what role the U.S. might play in Bosnia beyond next spring. On October 3, 1996, Secretary of Defense William Perry assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that no firm commitment to a new NATO force has been made; during NATO meetings in Norway the previous week, however, the Secretary of Defense refused to specify any conditions or guidelines that might frame the circumstances in which the U.S. might participate in a new implementation force for Bosnia. This ambiguity has left the door wide open for an open-ended and undefined U.S. military commitment to Bosnia that could last throughout 1997 and beyond.

Such a commitment is both unwise and disproportional to U.S. national security interests in Bosnia. The U.S. needs a plan to extricate its forces from Bosnia in stages and to turn the responsibility for consolidating the peace to other European organizations. To ensure that it does not become bogged down in an open-ended military commitment in Bosnia, the U.S. should:

  • Keep only a limited number of U.S. support troops in place in Bosnia in 1997. There should be no American combat ground troops in a new IFOR.
  • Organize a follow-on implementation force in Bosnia under NATO's new Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept with a European commander.
  • Remove all U.S. troops from the Balkans by 1998.

This staged removal of the U.S. and NATO from Bosnia is necessary if the U.S. and its flagship alliance, NATO, are to avoid a likely decades-long military commitment to Bosnia. For 32 years, the United Nations has been chained to an open-ended peacekeeping commitment in Cyprus. It would be highly injurious to NATO to be involved in Bosnia for the next 30 years. To avoid making Bosnia a ward of the U.S., and NATO an emasculated collective security or peacekeeping alliance, the U.S. must now put forth those conditions to European allies.

The Political Failure of Peacekeeping in Bosnia

The NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia has been a military success but a political failure. This contradiction is rooted in the fact that the military provisions of the Dayton Accord are working at cross purposes with its political provisions. The military mission is to separate the existing Serb, Croat, and Muslim forces, while the political goal is to unify Bosnia. These goals are irreconcilable. Since the beginning of the mission, the military component has endured steady criticism about its refusal to launch manhunts for indicted war criminals and strictly enforce the right of refugees to return to their pre-war homes. If NATO undertook these tasks, however, it could re-ignite the war it is supposed to be preventing, not to mention embarking on the sort of "mission creep" that doomed the United Nations' intervention in Somalia.

As a result, the efforts of 53,000 military troops from some 30 countries have done little to advance the political provisions of the Dayton agreement. The principal mission of the military forces while manning the zone of separation in Bosnia was self-preservation. This was especially true of U.S. troops, whose missions were organized mainly to avoid casualties in an election year. While the U.S. has suffered only one death from hostile incidents since December 1995, the IFOR operation has cost $3.5 billion -- more than twice the Administration's 1995 estimate.4

That investment was intended to finance a one-year military effort aimed at implementing the political provisions of the Dayton Peace Accord. That hope is looking bleak, however; the September 14 elections in Bosnia merely confirmed the illusionary nature of the Dayton agreements, evident to many in 1995.5 The Dayton Accord's goal of a united and multiethnic Bosnia is wholly unrealizable. In the recent elections, over 80 percent of Bosnians voted in solid ethnic blocs, and few refugees crossed ethnic lines to vote in their pre-war districts. Thus, the factions of Bosnia have claimed with ballots what they had fought for with bullets. As Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) noted on the eve of the elections, this "bring[s] us back to where we started: a region full of hostile, ethnically divided factions facing off at tenuous borders, under unstable military, economic, and social conditions."6

The Dayton Accord's vision of a multiethnic Bosnia is doomed, and partition appears to be inevitable. All that remains is to establish the political goals of a follow-on peacekeeping force and devise the military missions needed to achieve those goals. More important for U.S. military planners will be whether the goals of the military forces are clearly defined, decisive, attainable, and sustainable, and whether they truly contribute to achieving the political goals.

NATO planners are creating four options for IFOR II. The working assumption is that the U.S. will play a leading role in all of them.

OPTION #1: Complete withdrawal
This is the least likely option and will get little attention and consideration. America's European allies, who have always been more realistic about the many years that will be needed to patch up Bosnia, regard the one-year time limit as no more than a U.S. election-year ploy. This option presents a stark alternative that probably will be rejected by NATO. No one in NATO wants to walk away from Bosnia entirely.

OPTION #2: War prevention
This option foresees a smaller NATO force with significant combat capabilities. This force, charged mainly with keeping the factions from resuming the war, would deter (and perhaps defeat) any large-scale organized violence that might break out after the departure of IFOR. Given the European reliance on U.S. combat capabilities, this option would require a significant U.S. military presence. The assumption is that the Bosnians would carry on with political reconciliation under a NATO security umbrella designed to prevent the renewal of factional fighting.

OPTION #3: A "sustainment" force
This force, about half the size of IFOR, would require about 20,000 troops in Bosnia. It would have the unclear mission of maintaining a general atmosphere of peace and security. It also would be more involved in the political reconciliation of Bosnia than a "war prevention" force but probably would continue to avoid such tasks as hunting down war criminals and enforcing the return of refugees to their pre-war homes. NATO is most likely to choose this option because its mission is the least clear and therefore less likely to polarize either the NATO allies or political factions inside Bosnia. All sides can see in this option exactly what they wish to see. The Europeans could envision an extended presence, while the U.S. would be happy with a reduced presence.

OPTION #4: Full-scale continuation of IFOR and its current mission
Adoption of this option is not likely because it would require a continued American commitment of some 35,000 U.S. troops to the region -- a politically insupportable position in the U.S. In addition, while America has every intention of reducing its commitment, the European allies have made it clear that they will not increase their own troop commitment to keep a follow-on force up to IFOR's current strength.

Options 2, 3, and 4 all involve a significant U.S. ground presence in the Balkans for the foreseeable future: 10,000 to 12,000 U.S. ground troops in Bosnia, Croatia, and Hungary. The U.S. has laid down no criteria for U.S. participation in a follow-on force; nor has the Pentagon recommended one of these NATO options to the President. This public refusal to specify the conditions under which U.S. troops will participate has left NATO planners with the impression that the level of American participation in IFOR II will remain the same as it was in the original mission. Conversely, the European allies have set forth their criteria by stating repeatedly that they have no intention of staying in Bosnia if the U.S. pulls out.

While the U.S. has hinted at reducing its presence in Bosnia, the Europeans have made no efforts to step into the leadership vacuum if the U.S. leaves. German officials say they are prepared to provide up to 3,000 soldiers for an IFOR II of 20,000 to 25,000 troops.7 The French and British commitments to a follow-on force will be consistent with their commitments to the original IFOR; neither government has indicated a willingness to change its level of commitment to a Bosnian peace force. In any event, the European assumption is that America is still expected to provide the lion's share of any new peacekeeping force. There is no evidence whatever that America's European allies are prepared to step up to the plate and assume a greater share of the military burden in Bosnia.

The Big Picture: Bosnia and NATO's Division of Labor

Politicians from all sides of the American political spectrum maintain that while the U.S. is a world leader, it cannot be responsible for policing the world. Distinguishing between the two roles of global power and global cop requires the ability to choose where and when to use America's military forces, as well as to understand how they can be used most effectively. It also requires an alliance system in which the U.S. acts like a great power and does not try to put out every brushfire in the world. America must demand that prosperous and powerful allies take the lead in addressing local crises that are peripheral to American security interests. If the U.S. does not enforce this implicit bargain, the allies will continue to let it do the heavy lifting in missions like Bosnia.

This unfair and unwise sharing of the security burden in Europe is neither politically nor militarily sustainable. In addition to perpetuating an outdated division of labor, it flies in the face of at least three long-range political and security trends in the alliance.

TREND #1: Strategic Strain
Because of post-Cold War cuts in the U.S. defense budget, America's armed forces have shrunk by some 35 percent since 1991. However, while "supply" has been reduced, "demand" has not diminished. America's overseas military requirements have not decreased since the end of the Cold War. In fact, they have increased in many circumstances. As a result, the U.S. does not have a force large enough to carry out the national security strategy designed by the President. It is well-known that the Clinton Administration's Bottom-Up Review (BUR) Force will not be large enough to fulfill the task of winning the number of major regional conflicts required by the present national strategy. It also is widely known that the current force is not adequately funded.8

What is less well-known is the effect of this double mismatch on the men and women of America's armed forces. Attempts to bridge this gap between the ends and means of American strategy have left America's armed forces severely strained, demoralized, and unprepared for the future. The results: U.S. forces deploy at three to four times the rate of the Cold War; major combat training exercises have been canceled; "gaps" appear regularly in the coverage provided by the shrinking Navy to key regions of the globe; problems with divorce, quality of life, and re-enlistment are on the rise; and money spent to recapitalize the armed forces for the future is down by some 70 percent since the Reagan years.9 Robert Gaskin, a former Pentagon planner, states that the armed forces' men and materiel are "approaching burnout."10

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) believes that strategic strain is "stretching our military [to] the verge of the breaking point." He warns that "at some point somebody needs to stand up and say there is a minimum size to being the world's only superpower, and we have gotten smaller than that in terms of our regular units, and we have an obligation to insist on a military in which people can serve without being burned out by the sheer constancy of their being used."11

TREND #2: Diverging Military Competencies
The core competencies of the armed forces of the United States and its European allies are diverging, making the European allies more dependent on the U.S. for military operations. For the most part, the U.S. armed forces are focused on deterrence and warfighting against aggressive states. While the U.S. is prepared to go to war in a number of regions to protect American interests and American allies; the NATO allies are slashing defense spending and refocusing their military establishments on peacekeeping and operations other than war.

As in the United States, monetary concerns are one of the principal driving forces behind the changing military capabilities of the NATO allies. While Korea and Japan have increased their defense spending since the end of the Cold War, America's European allies have cut defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) by an average of one-third.12 Most of these funding reductions have been precipitated by the need to meet the stringent fiscal requirements of European Union monetary integration.13

More important, America's allies are not investing in military systems needed to project power and conduct sustained warfighting campaigns; rather, they are preparing for regional peacekeeping and other low-intensity conflicts. With only a few exceptions, they are not investing in strategic airlift and sealift; strategic logistics systems; space-based command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) networks; and modern weapon systems based on revolutionary advances in information technology.14 In Bosnia, while the allies provide over 50 percent of the implementation force, the U.S. supplies 46 of the 48 satellites used by IFOR for command, control, communications, and intelligence.

TREND #3: Diverging Security Interests
During the Cold War, the overwhelming threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact caused allied interests to converge and provided a centripetal force that held NATO together. However, most post-Cold War security challenges will be well below the threshold of a major power threat. Problems like the ethnic battles in the former Yugoslavia threaten local and regional security interests more directly than they do the more global security interests of the United States. Common sense would dictate that local powers and regional security arrangements should be the "primary care networks" for small regional security crises. States with the most immediate interests should be the principal candidates for providing most of the resources necessary to solve the problem.

The recent series of confrontations with Iraq and the multinational operation in Somalia highlight the diverging security interests of the U.S. and its allies. In both cases, the coalitions were faced with relatively minor threats but could not agree on common approaches to solving the crises. In Iraq, the French criticized the U.S. action and refused to help the British and American air forces patrolling the extended no-fly zone. In Somalia, the U.S. virtually accused the Italian contingent of being in league with warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed and even publicly asked the U.N. to fire the Italian commander. These examples highlight the fact that when allies face lesser threats, their interests can differ greatly. It therefore behooves an alliance managing a crisis like Bosnia to match the differing interests and capabilities of various allies to different roles and responsibilities. In other words, the U.S. should not be expected to have the same degree of interest in a local European security affair as the European allies themselves have.

The Imperative of American Leadership: A New Security Bargain

These trends suggest that the U.S. needs to strike a new security bargain with its European allies. The U.S. should keep the military alliances that served it well during the Cold War and are still useful in protecting vital interests, but it must adapt them to the changing nature of the post-Cold War world. America's role in these alliances should be focused on the military tasks that directly protect America's vital interests. This means, primarily, deterring major power threats to the United States and such key regions as Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf, and ensuring unimpeded U.S. access to such key global systems as trade, finance, energy, and natural resources. America's alliances exist to serve these missions and to make American power more effective by harnessing and using the resources and energies of allies who share these goals.

In return for this commitment to the major tasks of global security, America's allies increasingly must take the lead in smaller regional and local security crises that exist well below the threshold of vital U.S. national interests. In these crises, the U.S. must play only a supporting role, helping allies with unique and decisive U.S. military capabilities. In general, America must reserve its limited resources for the singular and critical tasks of global security that it alone can accomplish.

Good leaders measure the differing talents and resources of their team, and match missions and tasks to those team members most suited for the job. In this way, the overall effect of the alliance is more than the sum of its members. As management guru Peter Drucker has noted, "effective leaders delegate a good many things; they have to or they drown in trivia. But they do not delegate the one thing that only they can do with excellence, the one thing that will make a difference, the one thing that will set standards, the one thing they want to be remembered for. They do it."15 The U.S. cannot and should not delegate its superpower role in global security, but it can and must delegate regional peacekeeping to those local powers well-equipped to do it.

What Kind of New Peacekeeping Force in Bosnia?

A follow-on Bosnian peacekeeping force, or IFOR II, should be smaller; should have fewer tanks, artillery, and other "heavy" forces; and should be more European. The U.S. and its European allies generally agree on those conditions, but they have very different ideas about the extent to which the U.S. should be involved. Since the Dayton Accord was signed, European officials have been much more realistic and forthcoming about the need for a long-term military commitment to Bosnia. Moreover, French and British officials repeatedly have insisted that they would not keep forces in Bosnia if U.S. forces were withdrawn. Thus, the negotiations over an IFOR II are likely to come down to a battle of political will, with the European allies attempting to obtain the largest U.S. commitment they can while the U.S. tries to provide the smallest force possible. To avoid this trap, the U.S. should take the initiative in the NATO planning cycle. To prepare for this, the U.S. should insist on the following specific conditions:

  • NATO should use the new Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept to organize a follow-on peacekeeping force in Bosnia. A U.S. initiative, the CJTF was conceived in 1993 and, after several years of painstaking negotiations, agreed upon by NATO ministers in June 1996. The Combined Joint Task Force is a flexible military structure in which Europeans can lead while still borrowing some NATO resources for the task at hand. The CJTF makes it possible for European allies to assume the chief responsibility for regional problems (like Bosnia) while the U.S. commitment to NATO remains focused on the collective defense of Europe against outside aggression.16 It also is a practical mechanism that can stiffen the political resolve among European allies about their abilities to organize and undertake small crisis management, humanitarian relief, and peacekeeping missions.

    A CJTF for a follow-on force in Bosnia can come in several forms and can be led either by NATO or by a European security organization like the West European Union (WEU). The units involved in a CJTF are "separable but not separate" and could be "leased" from NATO. A CJTF is temporary and mission specific: Its units return to the NATO fold after mission completion or in the event of more important NATO contingencies.

    Any force following IFOR should have less combat power and more civilian resources. The military mission of separating Bosnian forces can be accomplished by European combat troops. The important work left to be done in the political, economic, and social reconstruction of Bosnia is the province of civilian aid workers and administrators, not combat troops.

  • The new force should be less American and more European. The U.S. is involved in NATO to help protect Europe from major power threats, not to police out-of-area ethnic disputes. Moreover, the U.S. cannot credibly undertake the former task while involved in the latter.17

    As a general proposition, the U.S. should limit its contribution to support units that are truly unique and decisive for the European-led effort: air and sea support, command and control resources, communications units, and limited logistics support from Hungary and Croatia. U.S. units in Bosnia itself should be restricted to combat service support units such as intelligence, command and control, communications, medical, military police, and civil affairs. In addition, for contingency planning purposes, the U.S. can provide a quick-reaction combat force from either the airborne infantry regiment in Vicenza, Italy, or an armored task force stationed temporarily in Hungary. This force could reinforce European peacekeepers in the event of an emergency they are unable to handle.

  • American armed forces should not be involved in Bosnia in any capacity after 1997. A continued NATO presence in Bosnia, led by Europeans and supported by the United States, will buy the Bosnians even more "breathing space." After 1997, however, any continuation of the military mission should come from Europe alone. The U.S. and NATO can leave Bosnia with their accomplishments intact if it is done in stages and while preparing other European organizations, such as the Western European Union or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to take over after NATO's departure.18
  • Control and management of the Bosnian peacekeeping force should devolve eventually from NATO to other European initiatives like the WEU and OSCE. NATO must reassume its principal role as the alliance providing for the collective defense of Europe. If NATO sees its raison d'etre in collective security actions like Balkan peacekeeping, it will become as emasculated as the OSCE.19 NATO is built around a clear mission and focused purpose; it should not become the dumping ground for every security crisis in Europe.
  • The new force should resemble a traditional peacekeeping operation. NATO should abandon the unrealizable goal of an integrated Bosnia as envisaged under the Dayton Accord. There is no achievable military mission for a follow-on force in Bosnia that would support the goals of Dayton. On the other hand, reduced political expectations about Bosnian integration can be supported by a peacekeeping presence throughout 1997. If the political solution is realistic and recognizes that Bosnia will evolve based on some form of partition, peacekeepers can support that goal. European-led peacekeepers therefore should limit their military ambitions to manning the zones of separation to ensure that no large-scale combat operations are conducted within Bosnia.


There is no way to predict with assurance what will happen to Bosnia in 1997 and beyond. Most experts agree that the prospects for a multiethnic state as envisaged by the Dayton Accord are dim. Because this political forecast is so gloomy and the political goals are so contentious and unachievable, it is highly doubtful that a clear and authoritative military mission can be defined for IFOR II. This combination of factors points to a protracted international presence that will have to "muddle-through" in Bosnia for years to come.

A new peacekeeping force should not be led by the United States. In the long run, such a presence should be the responsibility of an organization like the WEU or OSCE. America's main purpose in NATO should not be to police out-of-area ethnic conflicts in Europe.

The U.S. participation in IFOR is coming to a close, and Congress should hold the President to his promise of a mission that would take "about one year." A follow-on force in Bosnia can include a small U.S. support presence, but the entire enterprise must be underpinned by the clear indication of a European willingness to take charge of a difficult situation now that "breathing room" has been attained with the help of the U.S.

To support its European allies, the U.S. should accept the temporary attachment of American troops to a new Bosnian peacekeeping force. However, this force should be composed largely of European ground troops, and U.S. forces should remain under U.S. command. In this way, America can do what it does best -- focus on larger military contingencies -- while the Europeans take on a larger share of the peacekeeping burden.


  1. This includes U.S. troops in Croatia, Hungary, Albania, Italy, and the Adriatic Sea that are supporting IFOR.
  2. U.S. Department of State Dispatch, "President Clinton's Address to the Nation," November 27, 1995.
  3. Dana Priest, "GIs Staying in Bosnia into March," The Washington Post, October 2, 1996, p. A19.
  4. U.S. General Accounting Office, Bosnia: Costs Are Exceeding DoD's Estimate, GAO/NSIAD-96-204BR, July 1996.
  5. See John Hillen, "Questioning the Bosnia Peace Plan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1062, November 30, 1995.
  6. Remarks to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted in Martin Sieff, "Bosnia Vote Vital to U.S.," The Washington Times, September 13, 1996, p. A18.
  7. Philip Shenon, "Clinton Aides Say U.S. Might Back NATO Force in Bosnia in 1997," The New York Times, September 26, 1996 p. A9.
  8. The current "2-MRC" military strategy is widely discredited because it cannot be achieved by the U.S. military's current "Bottom-Up Review" force. Moreover, this inadequate force is grossly underfunded. Reports of this double mismatch are legion, and the crisis these trends eventually will precipitate has been referred to as the coming "defense train wreck." See especially Baker Spring, "Will Clinton Pay the Price for America to Remain a Global Power?," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1083, May 16, 1996; Andrew Krepinevich, "Bottom-Up Review: An Assessment," Defense Budget Project, 1994; and Snider, Betts, Krepinevich, et al., "The Coming Defense Train Wreck and What to Do About It," The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 1996). There also are several critical reports by the GAO, including "Bottom-Up Review: Analysis of Key DoD Assumptions," January 31, 1995, and "Future Years Defense Program: Optimistic Estimates Lead to Billions in Overprogramming," July 29, 1994.
  9. Statistics taken from U.S. General Accounting Office, "Military Readiness: A Clear Policy Is Needed to Guide Management of Frequently Deployed Units," GAO/NSIAD-96-105, April 1996; G. E. Willis, "On the Road Again," The Army Times, July 1, 1996; information provided by the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff's Operations Group, 1996; Chief of Naval Operations, "Department of the Navy FY 1997 Budget," 1996; Tom Philpott, "Is the Navy Now Too Small to Meet the Challenges of an Unstable World?" in Seapower Almanac (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Navy League, January 1996); and other sources.
  10. Quoted in Art Pine, "U.S. Military Highly Rated, But Strains Begin to Show," The Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1996, p. A7.
  11. From an address to the Center for Security Policy annual award dinner, Washington, D.C., September 18, 1996.
  12. Statistics taken from yearly issues of The Military Balance, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.
  13. Fred Barbash, "Europe's Quest of Common Currency by 1999 Proving Divisive But Fervent," The Washington Post, September 23, 1996, p. A15.
  14. In addition to statistics gained through publications such as The Military Balance, see R. L. Kugler, U.S.-West European Cooperation in Out-of-Area Military Operations: Problems and Prospects (Santa Monica, Cal.: RAND Corporation, 1994), and Asmus, Kugler, and Larrabee, "What Will NATO Enlargement Cost?" in Survival, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Autumn 1996), pp. 5-26, esp. pp. 8-11.
  15. Peter Drucker, "Not Enough Generals Were Killed," Forbes, April 8, 1996.
  16. John Hillen, "Getting NATO Back to Basics," Strategic Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1996), pp. 41-50.
  17. For information on the deleterious effects of peacekeeping duty on combat readiness, see Thomas Moore and John Hillen, "Clinton's Bosnia Venture Threatens What It Is Supposed to Uphold -- The Atlantic Alliance," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder Update No. 267, December 15, 1995, and U.S. General Accounting Office, Peace Operations: Effect of Training, Equipment, and Other Factors on Unit Capability, GAO/NSIAD-96-14, October 1995.
  18. All numbers are from the Department of Defense, but are approximate to reflect the variance in staffing levels and several different methods of calculating force numbers. Calculating air and sea support is problematic because the U.S. ordinarily has a Carrier Battle Group and Marine Forces stationed in the Mediterranean (Sixth Fleet) and air wings at bases in Italy. However, up to 12,000 U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel have been supporting IFOR full-time. These numbers should drop to 4,000-6,000 in IFOR II.
  19. Hillen, "Getting NATO Back to Basics."


John Hillen

Bradley Fellow in Education Policy