The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1012 on Europe

December 28, 1994

December 28, 1994 | Backgrounder on Europe

Don't Let Bosnia Destroy NATO


(Archived document, may contain errors)

1012 December 28,1994 DONT LET BOSNIA DESTROY NATO INTRODUCTION To reverse the tide of war in Bosnia, many in the United States have called for a withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping operation as a first step toward a stronger Western response to Serbian aggression. On December 8, President Clinton announced that the U.S. would commi t as many as 12,000 American troops to assist in this withdrawal if necessary. Some would go farther, urging the U.S. to arm the Bosnian government forces and conduct a Desert Storm-style air offensive against Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs as a way of forci ng them to accept an armed truce determine the future of the Atlantic alliance, calling to mind American leadership pro vided throughout the Cold War. To save NATO, they are willing to Americanize the conflict to save Bosnia.

But it may be exactly the oppo site: Misguided attempts to save Bosnia may destroy NATO by trying to force it to do what it cannot. During the Cold War, U.S. leadership was made possible by the consensus that NATO was united against a common threat to each member-states national intere s t: Soviet aggression.While there were disputes be tween the allies on a variety of other matters such as trade, macroeconomic policy, or for eign policies elsewhere, the clear and present danger imposed by the Soviet Union al lowed for unity behind strong U.S. leadership in Europe.

With the end of the Cold War, the consensus that holds the alliance together is much less clear. The coincidence of national interests goes no deeper than a desire to remain united against the possible re-emergence of a hostile Russia. By contrast, Europes view of the crisis in Bosnia is different from Washingtons. From the European perspective, it 2 Bosnia hawks see the crisis as an important test of U.S. and NATO resolve that will 1 2 Bill Gertz, U.S. troops to assist in Bosni a pullout, The Wushingron Times, December 9, 1994, p. Al.

Steven Greenhouse, Gingrich Is Urging aTougher Policy On Bosnias Serbs, The New York Times, December 5, 1994 p. Al. is a localized conflict that will only be worsened by U.S. insistence on air strik es and arming the Bosnian government. Europeans fear a prolonged and widened war in Bosnia more than they do a Greater Serbia.

Thus, the U.S. inability to lead the European alli es stems from their unwillingness to be led in a direction they feel is contrary to their own national interests. It is beside the point whether the U.S. or Europe is right about the correct policy toward the Serbs. The fact is that the Europeans-particul a rly the British and the French-believe the policy being advocated by Washington is contrary to their own national interests. The Europe ans cannot be led where they refuse to go. Never in the history of NATO has the divide between national interests of th e key allies been so deep or so apparent sis that is outside NATOs raison dgtre. NATO remains important as a means of re sponding to Americas vital interest in Europe: preventing the emergence of a dominant anti-Western power. The alliance was created for that purpose, and until Russia com pletes its transformation to democratic capitalism, it will be too early to declare that Europe is free of the specter of a potentially hostile dominant power.

The U.S. will be able to lead the European allies in a very d irect way on policies that respond to this strategic imperative, such as expanded membership to strengthen the bul wark against possible anti-Western hostility. But American leadership on non-strategic regional matters-and Bosnia is just such a matter-sho uld be aimed at getting the Euro pean allies to take responsibility for their own security concerns.

Some allies, notably the French, have long argued for European independence from the United States on security matters. Indeed, the concept of a European s ecurity pillar within the Atlantic alliance is explicitly agreed to in the treaty of European Union adopted at Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 199

1. The crisis in Bosnia gives the allies an opportunity to establish such a pillar, and U.S. leadership sho uld be aimed at encourag ing them to do so. This task has been made more difficult by the presence of an incompe tent U.N. presence that has served only to highlight the divisions between the U.S. and her European allies. The U.S. has been unable to lead a llies in a direction they refuse to go; Clintons decision to give his proxy for European leadership to the U.N. has only made matters worse The U.S. must be careful not to tear the fabric of the alliance by stretching it to fit a cri The challenge now is t o respond to the Bosnian war-a regional European conflict with no strategic implications for the U.S.-without tearing NATO apart. At the heart of this challenge is encouraging Europe to take responsibility for its own regional stabil ity. This can be done by adopting a more flexible view of the alliance than was possible or desirable during the Cold War. In doing so, the Clinton Administration should d Support and encourage the withdrawal of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR The U.N. operation h as failed and has allowed the Europeans to avoid responsibility by shifting blame to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General d Support lifting the U.N. arms embargo once U.N. peacekeepers are with drawn. If the allies favor doing so once their pea c ekeepers are withdrawn in order to allow Bosnia to defend itself, there is no reason the U.S. should oppose it 2 d Advise the European allies that they are free to conduct their own military operations, including air strikes and peacekeeping, if so inclin e d. Clinton should offer the European allies the use of NATO headquarters, communications, or logistics capabilities if necessary. However, U.S. combat forces-air or ground should not engage in NATO military operations in the Balkans d Appoint a prominent S pecial Envoy and take the lead in seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis. As a disinterested power, the US. can offer to broker negotia tions among the belligerents and their European neighbors THE COLLAPSE OF U.N. MILITARY CREDIBILITY The first step toward resolving the crisis in Bosnia is to acknowledge that the United Nations has no role to play. Nothing has become clearer than the fact that the United Na tions is incapable of coordinating large-scale military operations. The forces assigned to the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia have been victims of confused command relationships and vague objectives. Confined to a role that precludes it from any military activity beyond self-defense, UNPROFOR has become lit tle more than an observer force watching the military balance of power shift back and forth between the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) and Bosnian government troops.

The restrictions imposed on UNPROFOR have made a mockery of the so-called safe havens, Bosnian cities designated as protected zones by the United Nations. A November Bosnian Serb offensive has destroyed the safe haven in the northwest city of Bihac. the Meanwhile, United Nations commanders in the region recently were reduced to pleading with the Serbs to allow a U.N. military convoy into Bihac to provide humanitarian relief to 1,200 Ban ladeshi peacekeepers who had run out of food and were without cold weather gear.

The impotence of the U.N. peacekeeping force has heightened tensions within NATO which is supposed to be conducting air strikes to check Serbian aggression; The airstrike operation has a cumbersome chain of command that requires the U.N. military com mander to request a strike from the U.N. special envoy in the region, who defers to the U.N. S ecretary-General in New York, who then often turns to the U.N. Security Council for approval. The command then issues forth back through the U.N. chain to the NATO headquarters in southern Italy, from which aircraft are ordered to perform the mission.

As often as not, the reason for the air strike request has been overtaken by events long be fore permission is finally granted for NATO to conduct a strike.

Frustration with NATO. As a result of this marriage of inconvenience between the U.N. and NATO, the sh eer incompetence of the former has damaged the latters own credibility. During a recent visit to Europe, Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) raised questions re U.N. peacekeepers there have suffered the indignities of beatings and hostage-taking. 5 5 3 4 Chuck Sudeti c , U.N. Says Serbs Fail to Keep Promise to Lift Obstructions, The New York Times, December 4, 1994 Chuck Sudetic, Clinton Writes to Reassure Bosnian Government of Support, The New York Times, December 5, 1994 p. A12 p. 22 3 SHOUI garding NATOs future relev a nce given its poor showing in Bosnia. Incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went even further, calling NATO pathetic and helpless be cause of itsinability to block the Serbian advances through Bosnia5 But frustration with NATO is misplaced. The chai n of command between the United Nations and NATO has never been stronger than its weakest link: the U.N. The first step in restoring NATOs credibility is breaking that link and reaffirming the alliance as the only viable collective security organization in Europe.

Indeed, even as these new leaders of the U.S. Congress were expressing their skepti cism about NATO, European leaders were reminding the President of how important they still believe the alliance is. During Clintons recent trip to a European secur ity sum mit in Budapest, his counterparts from Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary reiter ated their firm desire to join the Atlantic alliance as insurance against a possibly resur gent Russia. For his part, Russian President Boris Yeltsin stated his g overnments oppo sition to NATO expansion in no uncertain terms. A senior Yeltsin adviser said expansion would be seen as an anti-Russian and hostile step.7 U.S. Frustration. Frustration among U.S. leaders reflects their desire that the war in Bosnia had g o ne differently. As has become all too clear in recent weeks, the Bosnian Serb Army is consolidating its victory in much of the territory claimed by the Bosnian government. Bosnia-Herzegovina now consists of a long border with Croatia in the south west tha t wedges down to a thin edge to the northeast and is virtually surrounded by a Serb-controlled region of some 70 percent of former Bosnian territory.

Many in the U.S. have argued that the U.N.-imposed arms embargo on Bosnia is anachronistic. Legislation pa ssed by the 103rd Congress forced President Clinton to an nounce in November that the U.S. would no longer participate in the embargo. Some would go even further, proposing that the U.S. and other countries arm and train the Bos nian forces to create a ba l ance of terror that could force the Serbs to the negotiating ta ble.8 6 D AMERICA BECOME MORE INVOLVED IN BOSNIA Beyond the vague notion that the U.S. must oppose aggression at the very heart of Europe, no one urging a stronger American role has offered a n y plausible explanation of how this serves the U.S. national interest. The question remains: Why should it be so vital to the United States who controls a historically disputed corner of southern Europe if none of the regions own most powerful nations see ms to care?

However unfair the Serb aggression, and however tragic the suffering and violence in the entire region, this conflict in the former Yugoslavia is of little strategic relevance to the United States. Supporters of a stronger U.S. response express an interest in preserv 5 6 7 8 December 4, 1994, interview on NBCs Meet the Press, cited in Greenhouse, Gingrich Is Urging aTougher Policy p A13 Jane Perlez, Unease at European Security Parley, The New York Times, December 5, 1994, p. A13 Yeltsin, Karaga n ov Oppose NATO Enlargement, RFURL Daily Reporr, December 5, 1994, p. 1 Gingrich Meet the Press interview, op. cir 4 ing stability in Europe, but they never make a convincing argument as to how Serbian ag gression in Bosnia threatens Europe as a whole. Und e r no conceivable conclusion to this conflict does war between the larger. European powers-which would be a legitimate concern for the United States-appear likely or even plausible. This could change in the future-if, for example, Russia were to take a mor e hostile course and offer direct sup port to the Serbs-but U.S. policy could be adjusted if that did occur 3osnia Is Not Munich, or Even Rwanda Those supporting greater American involvement through massive air strikes or arming the Bosnian government ofte n comparethe situation in the Balkans with German aggres sion in Europe in the 1930s, with the West and the U.S. playing the appeasement role of Neville Chamberlain. This comparison stretches the imagination and ignores reality.

Serbian leader Slobodan Mil osevic, the putative Hitler seeking a Serb lebensraum in the Balkans, already has accepted the most recent peace agreement offered up by the key NATO allies and Russia (the Contact Group In that agreement, Serbs in Bosnia would be forced to give up nearly 30 percent of the territory they have won in battle.

Moreover, even if Milosevic had not accepted this settlement, to compare Serbian skir mishes in a comer of southern Europe to Adolf Hitlers declaration of aTeutonic master race and desire for domination of the entire European landmass is nothing more than historical revisionism.

As horrible as the conflict is, it pales in comparison not only to the Nazi holocaust, but also to the carnage in Rwanda earlier this year that led to the death in a few weeks time of a half-million people. This was pure genocide, but elicited no similar calls for U.S. ac tion against aggression Nar on the Cheap: Ignoring the Risks of U.S. Intervention Another argument often made by those wishing greate r US. involvement is that US credibility is on the line. This argument is self-fulfilling: As long as leaders in the United States suggest that more direct unilateral action by the U.S. is desirable, Americas sub sequent actions will be judged against its declared intentions. If U.S. leaders hint at a De sert Storm-sized air assault, the U.S. can be faulted-with some justification-for not taking stronger action.

Moreover, those who advocate such action appear blind to its possible consequences.

What if, fo r example, the air strikes they support fail to roll back Serb gains or check fu ture aggression? This is a plausible outcome; Serbs already control some 70 percent of Bosnian-declared territory. The region is mountainous, and Serb forces are dispersed th r oughout. A Desert Storrn-type assault against large, fixed formations of enemy troops is unlikely. A better comparison might be to Operation Rolling Thunder during the Viet nam war, when the U.S. dropped thousands of tons of bombs on a vastly inferior ene m y but with little effect on the outcome of the war 9 The Balkan bombing strategy is war on the cheap. Without the commitment to follow through with ground troops capable of seizing territory-a commitment the Bosnia 9 See Senator Orrin Hatch, Strategic mis f ires over Bosnias plight, The Washington Times, December 7, 1994, for a recent example of this genre 5 A U.S hawks uniformly eschew-bombing very likely will lead to a war of attrition that will test American resolve and credibility far more than has been the case thus far. The US will have strapped itself to resolving a bloody war with limited means and with little pub lic support or understanding at home.

The decision to arm the Bosnian government carries similar risks. With the Bosnian Serb Army in contr ol of some 70 percent of Bosnian territory, it may be that only U.S supplied artillery, armor, and even combat aircraft and air defense weapons-and the ability to ship them quickly and in large numbers-could turn the tide for the Bosnian government. That c ould happen, though, only after much additional bloodshed and atroci ties on both sides. The U.S. would find itself responsible for the fortunes of war in a country and a region of the world where its interests are uncertain and its commitment is weak POL I CY THAT REFLECTS AMERICAN INTERESTS The U.S. has no vital interest in becoming militarily involved in a Balkan war, or even in saving the Bosnian state, as desirable as it may be to do so. U.S. vital interests in the region are limited to restoring some m e asure of NATO credibility and thus preserving NATO as a bulwark against the still-possible emergence of a dominant anti-Western state in Europe. Beyond that, the U.S. should encourage the European allies to assume re sponsibility for their own regional st a bility, perhaps even using NATOs structure as a point of departure rhetoric of those urging a stronger U.S. response. Thus, in close consultation with the NATO allies and Russia, Clinton should Clinton must restore the balance between interests and desire s that has been lost in the t4 Support and encourage the withdrawal of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR There is nothing the U.N. can do to improve the prospects for Balkan peace except withdraw. UNPROFOR should be disbanded and U.N. Special E n voy Yasushi Akashi sent back to the bloated bureaucracy from whence he came. Moreover, there is no rea son to endanger further the lives of troops making up the U.N. peacekeeping force. In any event, those forces would be withdrawn if the U.S. took unilat eral military action as some are recommending. British and French officials in particular have advised the U.S. of this fact. lo They also have made no secret of their concerns about attacks on re treating forces should a withdrawal be ordered.

Clintons De cember 8 offer of troops to assist in a pullout was a mistake that may well lead to unnecessary American casualties and deeper U.S. involvement. He should offer instead to negotiate a cease-fire to permit the withdrawal, making it clear to both the Serbs a nd the Bosnian government that hostile acts against the U.N. forces will be met with a disproportionate response by NATO warplanes against belligerent forces and the capital of either side taking the action 10 Greenhouse, Gingrich Is Urging aTougher Polic y , p. A13 6 d Support lifting the U.N. arms embargo once U.N. peacekeepers are with drawn If the allies favor doing so once their peacekeepers are withdrawn in order to allow Bosnia to defend itself, there is no reason the U.S. should oppose it. The embarg o makes little sense inasmuch as the country on which it was imposed-the former Yu goslavia-no longer exists. If the allies support lifting it once their troops are with drawn with the U.N. peacekeeping force, the U.S. also should support doing so. At the same time, though, the U.S. should pledge not to rearm either side. This would permit the U.S. to distance itself further from the conflict commensurately with Americas very limited interests in the region.

Resupplying the Bosnian government with weapons o nce the U.N. peacekeepers are withdrawn is not likely to do much to reverse the tide of this war. As has been widely reported, many Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, have long been violating the embargo to provide the Muslim-dominated Bosnian gov e rnment in Sarajevo with weapons. This has been inadequate; Serb forces remain firmly in control of most dis puted regions d Advise the European allies that they are free to conduct their own military operations, including air strikes and peacekeeping, if so inclined Clinton should offer the European allies the use of NATO headquarters, communica tions, or logistics capabilities if necessary. However, U.S. combat forces-air or ground-should not engage in NATO military operations in the Balkans.

To hear thei r rhetoric, allied leaders are very concerned about the war in Bosnia. For example, it dominated discussion at the December 5 summit of the Conference on Se curity and Cooperation in Europe. German leader Helmut Kohl declared the recent fall of Bihac at t he hands of the Bosnian Serbs an extreme barbarity; the Wests inability to stop it can only be called a catastrophe. Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the situation has left him embittered, disillusioned, and full of anxi ety.

If the allies are so concerned-a doubtful proposition given their lack of resolve thus far-the U.S. should do nothing to stop them from coordinating their own mili tary response to the conflict. Clinton should invite Germany, Italy, France, Great Brit ain, or a ny other interested European ally to organize a task force under NATO aus pices but without the promise of U.S. troops. The European members of NATO are fully capable of conducting air strikes or otherwise widening the war against the Serbs.

The U.S. could provide logistic and communications support, or even intelligence-shar ing, and permit the commander of this joint task force to use NATO headquarters fa cilities to conduct operations.

If, as is likely, the allies refuse to fight the Serbs, the task for ce could provide a pres ence in undisputed regions of the conflict. This includes Macedonia, where some 500 American peacekeepers are serving as part of the U.N. force aimed at preventing a po 11 ll Jane Perlez, NO Unity on Balkans at Europe Summit, The N ew YorkTimes, December 7, 1994, p. A12 7 tential spillover of the Bosnian conflict A NATO-inspired task force would be a more appropriate presence than any organization chartered by and accountable to the United Nations.

Alternatively, the task force could be redesignated as a peacekeeping force should a comprehensive settlement of the conflict be reached through negotiation. This would permit the Clinton Administration to withdraw its offer of as many as 25,000 troops to serve as peacekeepers in such an e vent.

In supporting .a NATO task force, Clinton should endorse participation by interested non-NATO parties, possibly even Russian forces. The concept for such a proposal al ready exists as an element of the Partnership for Peace. l The PFP was approved by all sixteen NATO members at their summit in January 19

94. It establishes a loose but for mal relationship among NATO, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, and other in terested countries in Europe. The PFPs primary purpose is to serve as a precursor to expanded NATO membership.

Also approved at the January NATO summit, though, was the Combined Joint Task Force concept, by which a coalition of willing NATOPFP states might come together for a military operation outside of the traditional area of NATO responsibility. It. is no secr et that this concept was designed by the Pentagon with the Bosnian conflict in mind.

A NATO-organized, non-U.S. Combined Joint Task Force in place of UNPROFOR recognizes the hierarchy of American priorities in southern Europe. If achieved, it would re-esta blish the primacy of NATO over the U.N. or other ad hoc arrangements as the means through which the United States expresses its interests in Europe. It would also properly force European allies to assume responsibility-within NATO for what should be seen a s a localized European conflict not calling for U.S. forces d Appoint a prominent Special Envoy and take the lead in seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis As a disinterested power, the U.S. can offer to broker negotiations among the bellig erents an d their European neighbors. The U.S. already has nudged the United Nations out of diplomatic responsibility for a negotiated settlement by establishing the Contact Group-the U.S U.K France, Germany, and Russia. Clinton should appoint a well respected Speci a l Envoy and enlarge the negotiations to include representatives from all the disputed regions-Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and the Serb-held territory in Croa tia (Krajina)-to pursue a comprehensive settlement 12 LawrenceT. Di Rita and Baker Spring, The Decli n e of U.S. Military Strength Since the Gulf War, Heritage Foundation F. Y.I. No. 42, October 16, 1994, p. 5 13 For a full discussion of the PFP, see LawrenceT. Di Rita, Beyond the Partnership for Peace: An Action Plan for the NATO, Prague, and Moscow Summi ts, Heritage Foundation Buckgrounder No. 973, January 7,1994 8 CONCLUSION The conflict in Bosnia is a tragedy that might have been avoided had the United States and her European allies taken different actions when it first began nearly three years ago.

The fact that such decisions were not made, however, and the Wests inability thus far to stop the bloodshed, is no reason for Americanizing this European regional conflict in a vain attempt to undo recent history. There is no need to compound past bad decisi ons with new ones.

The U.S. interest in Europe is limited to preventing a single anti-Western power from achieving dominance. America should lead NATO in defending that interest. But in re gional conflicts such as the current war in the Balkans, American l eadership should be targeted at getting the European allies to take responsibility for their own region. In either case, U.S. leadership cannot be given by proxy to the United Nations or any other body.

The first priority of American policy in the Bosnian conflict should be to break the link between the U.N. and NATO. This will be the first step toward finding a European solution to a European problem through the Atlantic alliance. It may also be the only way to save the NATO alliance.

Kim R. Holmes Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies LawrenceT. Di Rita Deputy Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies 9

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