Chapter 11: Yugoslavia: 1989-1996

by Warren Zimmermann*

Background: 1945-1989

U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia was remarkably consistent during the Cold War. The United States and the United Kingdom had backed Josip Broz Tito during the closing years of World War Two in spite of his Communist affiliation and his never-disguised intention of turning Yugoslavia into a Communist country. Tito's Yugoslav opposition, Draza Mihailovic, a Serbian general in the pre-war royalist regime, had decided that it was more important to oppose Tito's Communist Partisans than to engage fully against the Germans. For the Allies, therefore, support for Tito was a pragmatic response to the need to tie down some 20 German divisions in the Balkans while the invasion of France was being prepared.

The same pragmatism guided U.S. policy when Tito was expelled from the Cominform by Stalin in 1948. The Truman administration decided to support the renegade Yugoslav Communist as a way to challenge Stalin, to deprive the Soviets of a sphere of influence on the Adriatic, and to ensure the survival of a possible magnet for further defections from the Soviet bloc. U.S. assistance to Tito included the provision of aircraft and other military equipment, plus a continuing economic aid program that won Yugoslavia a unique and favored position among all Communist countries.

The United States, of course, never bought into Tito's heterodox ideology, although his rejection of such Soviet shibboleths as democratic centralism and a monopolistic role for the Communist Party made it easier for successive American administrations to maintain support. Moreover, Yugoslavia's economic system was based on a (theoretically) decentralized "self-management" rather than on a Gosplan and a five-year planning cycle. Some economic decisions were in fact made at the factory level, though the Yugoslav party exercised considerable behind-the-scenes control. From the 1950s Yugoslavia's borders were open to a remarkable degree for a Communist country; Tito, whose opportunism usually got the better of his Bolshevism, had seen the value of allowing Yugoslav workers to earn hard currency in the West. This openness impressed even Nikita Khrushchev, who remarked on it in his memoirs.

Following his famous rapprochement with Khrushchev in 1955, Tito kept his relations in balance between the Soviet Union and the United States. This balancing act caused numerous problems for American policy. For example, during the 1961 summit of Non-Aligned Countries in Belgrade, the Soviets tested a high-megaton nuclear weapon. Despite his persistent criticism of U.S. nuclear testing, Tito rejected the advice of his foreign minister and decided not to criticize Moscow. This blatant favoritism was a factor in the U.S. Congress's cut-off of aid to Yugoslavia in that year, over the strong objections of the then-Ambassador, George F. Kennan.

Successive U.S. governments chose to humor Yugoslavia when it ignored Western concerns rather than risk an increase in Soviet influence over Tito. For example, when a Yugoslav writer, Mihajlo Mihajlov, was arrested in 1965 for an American magazine piece sympathetic to dissidents in Russia, no U.S. protest was forthcoming. Sometimes the United States went to absurd lengths to stay in Tito's good graces. When Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas was released from prison in 1966, no American diplomat made contact with him. The British embassy, on the other hand, met Djilas frequently, at no cost to itself. Tito's key role in the non-aligned movement was also a thorn in the American side, but U.S. reactions to habitual non-aligned bashing of the "capitalists" and "imperialists" were usually tepid.

U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia in the entire Cold War period can be summed up in four words: independence, unity, territorial integrity. This mantra was a code for saying that we wanted to see Yugoslavia remain free of Soviet control or influence and that preservation of her unity was the best way to assure this. American interests included the following:

  • Yugoslavia's post-1948 independence from the Soviet Union was a major Western acquisition. Its return to the Soviet camp would amount to a Western defeat.
  • Yugoslavia could be an example for other Eastern European Communist countries anxious to slip Moscow's leash. The West had to show that independence would be rewarded.
  • Yugoslavia was geopolitically important, bordering on two NATO allies (Italy and Greece) and sporting a long coastline on the Adriatic.
The defense of Yugoslavia was never a formal commitment by the United States or by NATO. Still, there was calculated ambiguity in Washington's imprecision as to how it might react if Moscow tried to reincorporate Yugoslavia or carve off its Orthodox areas (Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia). While in 1968 the Soviets could move against Czechoslovakia in the near-certainty that there would be no U.S. military response, the same assurance could never be taken for granted with regard to Yugoslavia.

While the Cold War lasted, U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia, with some ups and downs, remained consistent over four full decades. Two factors in the decade of the 1980s radically changed the context in which that policy was made. The first was Tito's death in 1980. Tito, an autocrat if there ever was one, ensured that no autocrat would succeed him. The 1974 constitution, crafted while he was still alive, provided for a collective presidency rotating among republics, with the small treated equally with the large. Not only would there be no strong leader, but the dominant ethnic group, the Serbs, were denied the prospect of virtual hegemony which they had enjoyed during the interwar period. The groundwork for a serious Serbian grievance was thus laid.

The second factor was the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. These cataclysmic events removed the important place which Yugoslavia had occupied in the East-West balance. No longer could it be argued that Yugoslavia's unity and territorial integrity were essential to America's vital security interests. The basis for the four-decade consensus between U.S. administrations and the Congress was no longer in place. It now became possible for members of Congress to isolate and advance specific aspects of policy toward Yugoslavia, such as human rights and ethnic preferences or dislikes. With no Soviet Union to pick up the pieces of a fractured Yugoslavia, there was also less rationale for holding Yugoslavia together. With the election of George Bush as president in 1988, U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia entered successively three short and extremely dynamic phases--a Kosovo phase, a secession phase, and a Bosnia phase.

The Kosovo Phase

The "autonomous province" of Kosovo was linked loosely to Serbia by Tito's 1974 constitution. Kosovo was in fact sacred territory to Serbs. It was the heartland of medieval Serbia, the site of the most sacred Serbian churches and monasteries. And it was inhabited overwhelmingly by infidels--Muslim Albanians who outnumbered the Serbian population by about nine to one. The Serbian analogy of choice was to Jerusalem; in fact the two issues had much in common. Probably with the aim of fragmenting Serbian power, Tito built up the Albanians, giving them considerable local power and awarding Kosovo a seat on the Yugoslav presidency. With another seat on the presidency going to Vojvodina, an area with a large Hungarian minority, Serbs could argue credibly that they could be outvoted two-to-one in their own supposed sphere of influence.

When Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia in the late 1980s, his first actions were directed against Kosovo Albanian dominance in the province. He removed virtually all the Albanians' rights--their leading role in the government, party, and Parliament; their control of the Albanian-language library; and their administration of the school system. Kosovo became a classic human rights case involving the deprivation of the rights of a minority. It was this aspect of the situation which first attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. A pro-Albanian coalition formed among those who had ethnic Albanian constituents (Representative Joseph Dioguardi, an Albanian-American, and Senator Alphonse D'Amato), those who habitually cultivated the support of ethnic groups (Senator Bob Dole), and those who saw Kosovo more as a pure human rights problem (Representative Tom Lantos).

While it was the Congress which sensitized the Reagan and Bush administrations to Kosovo, the Executive Branch needed little prodding. Annual human rights reports submitted by the Department of State to the Congress catalogued massive human rights abuses by Serbian authorities. In hearings for his confirmation as deputy secretary of state on March 15, 1989, Lawrence Eagleburger criticized Milosevic on Kosovo and said that the U.S. government should be expressing its concern over the issue. The present writer, arriving in Belgrade the same month as U.S. ambassador, carried instructions voicing that concern. In my first public press interview, in June 1989, I made the issue public.

The Congress didn't always speak with one voice on Kosovo. While most members were prepared to go along with non-binding resolutions attacking Serbia, Representative Helen Delich Bentley, a Serbian-American, was often successful in watering them down. She was not, however, able to change the growing image of the Congress as anti-Serb and pro-Albanian. Many members of Congress, in fact, were prepared to go much further than the Bush administration on Kosovo. Reflecting an unnuanced bias toward democracy and self-determination, they advocated independence for Kosovo, referring to it in its Albanian-language spelling as "Kosova." The Executive Branch, keen to keep Yugoslavia together and nervous about a possible breakup of the Soviet Union, maintained that Kosovo remained a part of Serbia, albeit a much-abused one.

The Kosovo issue also provided a glimpse of the effect of ethnic lobbies on the Congress and the government. The Albanian lobby, despite its small size, managed to reach the ear--and the campaign coffers--of such influential legislators as Senator Dole. Except for Representative Bentley's rear-guard actions, Serbian-Americans were not particularly influential, despite the existence of about one million of them in the United States. The reason was probably that they were divided over whether to support Milosevic, who was both a Communist and a nationalist. Those Serbian-Americans who were politically active tended to back Milosevic, on the merits a much harder job than Albanian-Americans faced in protesting against Milosevic's human rights abuses. The Croatian lobby, representing about two million Croatian-Americans, got close to Senator Dole, but devoted most of its efforts to financing the election campaign of Franjo Tudjman, the nationalist who won Croatia's first free election in 1990.

Despite the strong Congressional support for the Kosovo Albanians, at no time before Yugoslavia's breakup was there any inclination, either in the Congress or in the Executive Branch, to defend them by force. This was the case even though Dole and others called for Kosovo's independence--a condition which, if achieved, would have left the Albanian population there powerless against Serbian retribution.

The Secession Phase

At the outset of the Bush administration, it was clear that U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia needed a course correction. The country's loss of prime geopolitical importance with the winding down of the Cold War, the non-democratic hangovers from the Tito era, and the post-Tito squabbling among ethnic groups called for some redefinitions. The message which I carried as the new U.S. ambassador in the spring of 1989 was that the United States would continue to support the unity, territorial integrity, and independence of Yugoslavia. However, other issues had become increasingly important. Democratization, for example, was proceeding apace in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary; economic assistance in Eastern Europe would be dependent on progress toward democracy.

In Yugoslavia's case, we would not support unity if it were maintained at the expense of democracy or by force. Human rights would be a paramount issue. Development toward a market economy would be an important test. Finally, specific issues of major concern to the United States, like terrorism (Yugoslavia had harbored known terrorists), would play a role in the bilateral relationship. Since there was no longer a Soviet adversary, any implied threat of force to protect Yugoslavia was even more remote in the new policy than it had been in the old.

There was no controversy within the U.S. government on the new approach. Nor did the Congress object to it. However, the Congress, with its more populist orientation, was less committed to unity than the Bush administration. From 1989 until the elections of 1990 unity and market reform came to be symbolized by the new Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, a strong advocate of a Western economic system for his country. Markovic made a successful visit to the United States in October 1989. He met President Bush, Secretary of State Baker, Treasury Secretary Brady, Commerce Secretary Mosbacher, some Congressional leaders, and U.S. businessmen and bankers. During their meeting the President reaffirmed his strong support for Yugoslav independence, unity, and sovereignty, and welcomed Markovic's commitment to market-oriented economic reform and democratic pluralism.

The republic elections of 1990, welcomed universally in the United States, produced fissiparous tendencies in Yugoslavia. The elections brought into power in the republics nationalists of many stripes. In Slovenia and Croatia, the elections were won by politicians who, explicitly or implicitly, advocated the secession of their republics from Yugoslavia. In Serbia, the voters' confirmation of Milosevic threatened the smaller republics, including Slovenia and Croatia, with a Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia. The future of the country, and of U.S. policy, was clearly in trouble. In Washington, Yugoslavia became a front-burner issue.

The policy-making apparatus in the U.S. government by chance contained at the top considerable expertise on Yugoslavia. Eagleburger, the deputy secretary of state, had served eight years as a diplomat in the country, four as ambassador. Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security advisor, had served in Belgrade as an assistant air attaché. I was the fourth American ambassador in succession who was a career foreign service officer to have served two tours in Yugoslavia. President Bush had himself visited Yugoslavia and retained positive memories of it. This expertise had been mainly acquired in the Tito period; it was rooted in a strong belief that instability and violence would follow the shattering of Yugoslavia's unity.

Now, however, the preservation of Yugoslavia's unity meant something different. For the first time Yugoslavia's unity was being challenged from within, not from without. I phrased the U.S. position in a speech on May 28, 1990: "We hope that no constituent unit of Yugoslavia will seriously consider separation, just as we hope that no consideration will be given to using force to preserve unity." No threat of force was stated or implied.

The sharp rise of nationalism following the 1990 elections led Washington to pose two questions. First, what was the prospect of Yugoslavia's breaking up, and what would be the consequences of a breakup? Second, what should the United States do about it? All the major U.S. players recognized the possibility of a breakup, but the CIA, in a study prepared in September 1990, was the first to predict flatly that a breakup was inevitable. Ever since late 1989 it had been the shared view of the experts in the embassy in Belgrade and in the government in Washington that a breakup would almost certainly be violent and would probably lead to war. Among allies there was less concern, and Scowcroft and the NSC staff launched an effort during 1990 to alert the Europeans through NATO that stability in the Balkans was under serious stress and to encourage them to more purposeful diplomacy. Except for Italy, there was not much reaction in Western Europe.

What was the United States to do about this new danger? Within the administration there was little dissension: Prime Minister Markovic, as a democratic figure striving to hold the country together, should receive continued support. On a broader canvas, there was a collateral concern that the breakup of Yugoslavia might help to destroy Gorbachev's Soviet Union, which at that point the Bush administration was anxious to keep together. However, the relative values of unity and democracy in Yugoslavia underwent a subtle shift in U.S. government thinking and expression. There was a widely-shared official view that unity and democracy were inseparable. If unity was sacrificed on the altar of Slovenian or Croatian democratic self-determination, war would result, and democracy, as well as unity, would suffer. Conversely, if the Yugoslav army and Milosevic tried to hold the country together by force, there would be armed resistance from Slovenia and Croatia, and both democracy and unity would be sacrificed. Markovic, to the extent he was viable, squared this circle.

The problem was that Markovic's middle way became less and less viable during 1990 and early 1991. While the linkage of unity and democracy remained a staple of U.S. policy, democracy began to creep up the ladder of emphasis. For example, the State Department spokesman on October 19, 1990 (several months after the elections in Slovenia and Croatia) stated: "The United States firmly supports unity, democratic change, respect for human rights, and market reform." By 1991, democracy was receiving pride of place in the litany of U.S. principles on Yugoslavia. In a May 23 statement listing five principles, Secretary of State Baker put democracy first and unity last of the five.

Meanwhile, the Congress greeted the republican elections enthusiastically, with no misgivings for the rise of nationalism and the resultant weakening of Markovic, the man they had welcomed as a model democrat the year before. Only a few members showed concern about the possible breakup of the country. For the majority Yugoslavia was--like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary--a Communist state whose authoritarian leadership was being swept away by democratic elections. They failed to notice that Markovic had tried unsuccessfully to hold elections on a federal, as well as a republican, basis. Nor did they grasp that Yugoslavia was not a dictatorship of the center, as the other Eastern European countries had been. In fact the center was weak and ineffectual.

This analytical approach, plus the strong desire to punish Milosevic's Serbia, led the Congress to a number of resolutions, mostly over Kosovo, which featured Milosevic's human rights violations and downplayed, ignored, or even criticized the importance of Yugoslavia's unity. The strongest of these was the Nickles-Bentley Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and diluted somewhat by Rep. Bentley, Serbia's chief defender in the Congress. The amendment, voted in November 1990, prohibited U.S. economic assistance to Yugoslavia in fiscal 1991 unless certain human rights conditions were met. The legislation, which had a six-month fuse (it was scheduled to go into effect May 5, 1991), affected only $5 million of assistance. In any case, Secretary Baker invoked his discretionary authority to prevent its taking effect. The amendment showed that the Congress, even in its great frustration, opted for economic over military sanctions.

While the Nickles-Bentley amendment became a dead letter, it did do some damage to a rational and understandable U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia. As Baker complained, it was aimed at the wrong target. To get at Serbia, it attacked Yugoslavia; it was as if the United Kingdom slapped an embargo on the United States in order to punish the transgressions of Maine. Worse, Markovic, the last hope for a peaceful and democratic solution, was made to look foolish. The administration, not for the first time, had stymied the application of a foolish congressional action. But the clarity and consistency of U.S. policy were sacrificed in the process.

During 1989 and 1990 no consideration was given, either by the administration or the Congress, to the use of force in dealing with Yugoslavia. Eagleburger visited the country in February 1990 and held an unprecedented meeting at the ambassador's residence with opposition leaders from all the Yugoslav republics. He expressed U.S. support for Yugoslavia's unity, independence, and territorial integrity, and he voiced concern about human rights abuses in Kosovo (representatives of the Kosovo Albanians were present). But he also said that the United States would live with any political outcome which Yugoslavs arrived at peacefully. One of the Slovenian representatives, a separatist himself, later told an embassy officer that the pro-independence Slovenes had taken Eagleburger's statement as an indication that the United States would not use force to stop a Slovenian move to secede.

If those who wanted their republics to secede from Yugoslavia feared no American use of force to stop them, those who wanted to prevent secession felt a similar absence of threat. At no point before the actual declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia did Washington threaten force against either republic, against Serbia, or against the Yugoslavia army. On March 16, 1991, for example, in reaction to Milosevic's efforts to provoke a crisis by destroying the Yugoslav collective presidency, the State Department's critical statement said that those resorting to force would be "isolated." Nor, so far as is known, did any member of Congress urge force on the administration. Not even the Congressional "hawks," like Dole, Lantos, or Nickles, saw the engagement of NATO or U.S. forces as called for in the complicated political scenario that was unfolding in Yugoslavia.

Why not? Wouldn't a credible threat of Western force have stopped the downward spiral that led to three wars? The answer is not clear, even in retrospect. For the administration all three sides--Serb, Slovene, and Croat--were guilty of irresponsible behavior, though guilty in different ways and to different degrees, with Serbia clearly the major malefactor. For the Congress only the Serbs were guilty, but not to a point warranting intervention. Against whom should an intervention be targeted? Against the renegade Slovenes and Croats? This would have been seen in the Congress as a blow against self-determination and would have been strongly opposed. Against Serbia and the army? Before the actual independence declarations in late June, they had committed no blatant acts of force; the Serb-Croat skirmishes in Croatia in the first half of 1991 had been instigated by both sides, though probably more by the Serbs.

It has been argued that this complex period was exactly the right time for a show of Western muscle, since a credible threat of NATO force, perhaps directed at all sides, could have arrested the slide toward violence. It is difficult to conclude that even a massive show of force, assuming the targeting problems noted above were solved, could have slowed the momentum of the Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian nationalisms, which were acting irrationally and without much regard for the eventual costs and consequences of their actions. In any case, such force was not considered; the West was a prisoner of what could be called "the paradox of prevention." In the Yugoslav case, as in many other international situations, it is nearly impossible to mobilize governments to take risks for prevention, since it is impossible to prove that the events which are to be prevented will, in the absence of prevention, occur.

In the unpromising circumstances of June 1991, Secretary of State Baker visited Belgrade on June 21 to meet with Markovic and the six republican leaders. It was very late in the game; Slovenia's declared deadline for secession fell only a week after Baker's visit. The secretary of state's visit would undoubtedly have been more useful if he had come six months earlier. One major reason why he did not was that he had been fully preoccupied with preparations for the Gulf War. A great power should be able to handle more than one crisis at a time; in reality this is harder than it appears. Baker's approach was crafted at the State Department and the NSC. The Defense Department was not yet playing a role--another indication that force options were simply not on the radar screen.

Baker's message, skillfully delivered, was entirely consistent with what the United States had been saying both publicly and privately all year. Baker urged the Croatian and Slovenian leaders to reconsider their decisions to secede. If they would not back down, he urged them to delay secession and to negotiate it with the Markovic government. To Milosevic he was sharply critical of the Serbian leader's oppression of the Albanians in Kosovo and of the effort to prevent a Croat from taking the normal succession as president of Yugoslavia. Baker made it clear that we would not support the use of force to hold Yugoslavia together. To Markovic (and indirectly to the Yugoslav army) he said that if the United States were compelled to choose between unity and democracy it would always choose democracy.

Baker gave no "green light" to Milosevic and the army to attack Croatia and Slovenia, any more than he had given a "green light" to the two republics to secede. Nor did he give a "red light": he didn't say that aggressive action by Serbia or the Yugoslav army would provoke a Western military reaction. The failure of the United States to arrest the trend toward breakup and violence was not attributable to the messages conveyed. The failure was in the fact that the United States didn't, and probably couldn't, credibly threaten force to back up its objectives.

In public statements just after the Baker visit, the U.S. government left no doubt about the limits to its support of Yugoslav unity. A State Department statement of June 26 said that "the United States strongly opposes the use or threat of force." On the same day Baker himself said: "We will strongly oppose intimidation or the use of force." The next day Baker said that the United States "could support greater autonomy, some sort of sovereignty for the republics of Yugoslavia."

On June 27, hostilities broke out between Slovenia and the Yugoslav army. Each side upheld its own version of sovereignty--Slovenia in defense of self-determination, the army in defense of Yugoslavia's borders. While making clear that Slovenia's declaration of independence would not be recognized, on June 28 the State Department stated: "We particularly call upon the central government and the Yugoslav army to end the bloodshed." On July 2, Margaret Tutwiler, the State Department spokesman, criticized Slovenia for triggering violence by seceding but at the same time strongly condemned the actions of the army. And on the same day President Bush, in a message to the new Croatian President of Yugoslavia Stipe Mesic, encouraged him to "promote new constitutional arrangements providing greater autonomy and sovereignty to the republics."

Following Baker's unsuccessful visit, Yugoslavia descended into collapse and war. In a ten-day skirmish the Slovenes won the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army; their independence, though unrecognized, was effectively secure. Croatia, with a 12 percent Serbian minority, didn't escape so lightly. The last half of 1991 saw bloody military operations between the Yugoslav army and the green but growing Croatian forces. Baker, stung by his lack of influence, acquiesced readily when the European Community under the Dutch presidency took on the Yugoslav challenge as a European issue and as a test of a European foreign policy. While never inactive, the United States played a second rank role on Yugoslavia from July 1991 until March 1992, when Bosnia reached the brink of war.

During the first half of 1991 the Congress showed itself increasingly sympathetic to Croatian and Slovenian independence. There was also some discussion within the administration--in the NSC staff and State Department--as to whether the United States should recognize that Yugoslavia was doomed and should try to "manage" its breakup. Few people held this view, which foundered on the analysis accepted throughout the government that there was no way Yugoslavia could disintegrate except in violence. This analysis, of course, proved correct. When former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was appointed U.N. mediator for the war in Croatia in November 1991, he added his voice to those who opposed U.S. abandonment of Yugoslavia until the contending republics had defined their relations with one another. British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, appointed at the same time as Vance and charged with mediating among republics, shared this view as well.

During the first few months of the 1991 war between Croatia and the Yugoslav army, the U.S. government did not consider the use of force. Whatever the constraining domestic reasons, the situation on the ground would have made Western intervention fiendishly difficult. Tudjman had been guilty of violating the rights of Serbs in Croatia. There was thus no clear-cut moral advantage on the Croatian side. The Yugoslav army claimed to be protecting the rights of Serbs; only later did it become clear that the army was seizing Serbian-occupied territory for permanent occupation. There was no element of "invasion" in this war; army units operated from barracks and bases in Croatia (including in its capital city of Zagreb) where they had been stationed since World War II. Moreover, Tudjman showed considerable ambiguity about the army's role. At times during the Croatian war he actually praised the defense minister to me.

The issue of Western use of force arose for the first time in the U.S. government in the autumn of 1991. The catalyst was the Yugoslav army's shelling of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, a walled medieval town on the Adriatic and a U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-certified tourist attraction. The ease with which Yugoslav forces could be attacked--they were shelling Dubrovnik from a hill above the town and from gunboats--and the city's worldwide fame provoked a discussion in Washington. There were three views: to avoid force; to respond to the assault on Dubrovnik even at the risk that a Western response might not work; and to recognize that, if the United States were to engage militarily, it would have to do so with substantial force and with a clear determination to win. For the first time the U.S. military and the Defense Department were brought into the discussion; they argued against the use of force, as they were to do consistently thereafter. Although the U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General John Galvin made contingency plans for the defense of Dubrovnik, they were not used. President Bush decided against force.

The third Dubrovnik option--not to use force unless we were prepared to do so massively and with a willingness to escalate to ensure victory--became a principal theme in the debate over the U.S. role in the Balkans, particularly in the Bosnian war. It invoked the failure of Vietnam, where we had allegedly fought "with one arm tied behind our back" and the success of the Gulf War, where overwhelming U.S. force had ensured victory. The argument was typically used by those who didn't want the United States to get militarily involved. It was central to the U.S. military's position on Bosnia. Eagleburger, while in the government and after, consistently expressed it, with the corollary that if we did get involved we would have to be prepared to see it through.

By late autumn of 1991, the two issues which were to bedevil the U.S. approach to Bosnia--support for Bosnia as an independent state and the use of force to defend it--were on the table. If force had been used to defend Dubrovnik, it's at least possible that the Serbs would have been deterred from their aggression in Bosnia. The question of Bosnia's recognition as an independent state, which was raised unilaterally by Germany, was even thornier. In any case, from December 17, 1991, when the EC, at Germany's urging, offered Bosnia a timetable for recognition, Bosnia dominated the foreign policy agendas of both the Bush and Clinton administrations.

The Bosnia Phase: Bush

The EC's decision to recognize Slovenia and Croatia and to offer recognition to Bosnia and Macedonia changed the whole Western approach to Yugoslavia as well as the context in which U.S. policy was made. The Bush administration had opposed any recognition until Carrington's efforts to work out a modus vivendi among the squabbling parties had run its course. The U.S. position was voiced publicly and was communicated to the EC, most notably by Bush in a meeting with German Chancellor Kohl in Rome in early November. But there was little punch in the American approach, and the Germans correctly calculated that the United States would quickly adjust to the change. Baker, in a 1994 interview with the Guardian, faulted U.S. policy for not having opposed the Germans more strongly.

Once it became clear that the Izetbegovic government in Bosnia was determined to pursue the EC's invitation for recognition, U.S. diplomacy entered a major questioning phase. The arguments for non-recognition of Slovenia and Croatia had grown weaker. Slovenia was virtually independent already, and by January 1992, the major bars to recognition of Croatia--the absence of a cease-fire and lack of a decision to introduce U.N. peacekeepers--had been lifted. The discussion of Bosnia was animated by two new factors. First, by early March 1992, Bosnia had fulfilled the EC's requirements for recognition, most notably via a referendum in which 64 percent voted for independence (almost all the Serbs boycotted). Second, the evidence had become virtually conclusive that Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, were planning a takeover of some two-thirds of Bosnian territory anyway. The view of the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, which won support in Washington, was that internationalizing the Bosnian problem by recognizing Bosnia as a sovereign state might deter the imminent Serbian aggression.

These arguments brought U.S. diplomacy out of the torpor into which it had fallen since Baker's Belgrade visit. In March 1992, the United States launched an effort within NATO to have all four republics recognized (Macedonia was later dropped because of Greek pressure). Western recognition came on April 6 and 7, but it came too late. The Serbian attacks had begun a few days earlier, and the ragtag Bosnian forces were soon on the run before the better trained and equipped Serbs. There was no debate in Washington over who had started the war: it was the Serbs. The issue was what to do about it. Throughout the spring Washington had instructed me to warn Milosevic that, if war came, we would assign major blame to him; Serbia would be isolated, a pariah. Again, force was not threatened.

Following the outbreak of hostilities, work began in Washington on possible economic sanctions which could be invoked against Serbia. The administration's arguments against the Nickles-Bentley amendment were now overtaken; Yugoslavia had already dissolved. On another track the administration confirmed its support for EC peace efforts which Carrington had delegated to the Portuguese, then in the EC presidency. On May 12, as part of a coordinated NATO effort, the United States announced its intention to withdraw its ambassador from Belgrade. The embassy was left intact, headed by a chargé d'affaires. On May 30, the U.N., at American initiative, imposed an economic embargo on Serbia; it was similar to the embargo in force against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The embargo was the main element in the U.S. effort to isolate Milosevic. There was little opposition to, or even discussion of, it in Washington. It seemed the least that should be done against Serbian aggression. The "most" that could be done--force--was a more difficult proposition.

The Bush administration had an immutable position on the force issue--no U.S. ground forces were to be used in Bosnia.

Other force issues--for example, force in support of humanitarian objectives or air power to dislodge the Serbian artillery around Sarajevo--were debatable and were in fact debated. But there was an overwhelming tendency--reflecting the views of the president himself--to declare force out of bounds altogether. None of the major shapers of U.S. policy toward Bosnia leaned toward force--not the president, not Scowcroft, not Baker, not Eagleburger, and, most emphatically, not Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, nor Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

Why this aversion to force? It seemed to have had three sources, not all of them articulated. The first was Vietnam. The "lesson" drawn from Vietnam was that even a minimum injection of American forces could swell inexorably into a major commitment and produce a quagmire. The second objection to force was the view that had prevailed during the successful prosecution of the Gulf War: there should be no U.S. military intervention unless the objectives were clear, the means applied to it would bring certain victory, there was an "exit strategy" (the earlier the better), and American casualties were sure to be minimal. The third factor was unexpressed: the coming presidential election of November 1992, which by the summer of 1992 undoubtedly bulked large in administration thinking. Pervading all these reasons was an almost obsessive fear of American casualties--an important change from the Gulf War, when large numbers of U.S. casualties were expected.

The Congress, though sharply critical of the Serbian aggression, did not clamor for force at the outset of the Bosnian war, nor did it afterwards. One of the few Congressional "hawks," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) told the present writer in June 1995 that he was certain Bush could have stopped the Serbian advance if he had been willing to use force early on. Lantos believed that the Congress would have rallied around Bush, as it did during the Gulf War. The Congress did, in fact, support President Clinton when he elected to use force in the summer of 1995.

There were three areas in which the Bush administration considered force:

  • The use of air strikes against Serbian artillery around Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia. This was urged by me in July 1992, and also by some of the middle level foreign service officers. While the State Department and NSC leaderships--notable under Bush for listening to contrary opinions--heard these views out, they never got close to accepting them.
  • An air operation to rescue victims of Serbian concentration camps in Bosnia. When the existence of camps, accompanied by evidence of atrocities against their inmates, was uncovered by the press in August 1992, the administration found itself the target of broad criticism from many quarters. One mid-level State Department officer resigned over the issue. Presumably because of the major public content of this issue, both Baker and Scowcroft showed interest in a rescue operation. There is no sign, however, that the president ever did, and nothing was done.
  • Air operations on behalf of humanitarian relief. Since the administration put great emphasis on the effective provision of relief, the argument for force in its support carried great weight. As described below, some steps, however halting and partial, were taken to meet this perceived need.
The bureaucratic battleground for policy recommendations during the Bosnian war was the interagency system, particularly the so-called Deputies' Committee, chaired by Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathon Howe and comprising representatives, inter alia, of the State Department, Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA. The Defense and Joint Chiefs representatives took a single, clear position throughout: no U.S. military personnel were to be put in harm's way. The Pentagon contingent sought to block the imposition of a no-fly zone, the initiation of a supply airlift to Sarajevo, the protection of land routes to Sarajevo and Mostar, and (during the Clinton administration) the institution of air drops to towns beyond the reach of aid convoys.

The Pentagon's tactic was never to say no, simply to raise objections which made proposals seem unworkable. The military argued that it would take 50,000 ground troops to protect the assistance route from Split to Sarajevo. When its opposition to a Sarajevo airlift was over-ridden, it urged a low limit to the goods flown in. It ridiculed air drops as completely unfeasible in view of Bosnia's mountainous terrain and uncertain weather. It opposed putting U.S. military observers on the ground in Bosnia to support a no-fly zone, recommending instead American foreign service officers or retired military personnel. At the heart of the military's visceral reaction against involvement was an understandable aversion to casualties, though this was taken to ludicrous lengths given U.S. interests (significant if not vital) in Bosnia and the fact that the U.S. military consists of volunteers who enlisted in the knowledge that they would run some risks. In the event, the United States has participated heavily in the no-fly zone, in the Sarajevo airlift, and in the air drops, with negligible casualties.

A broader explanation of the U.S. military's unwillingness to pick up the Bosnia burden was its intense aversion to conflicts which were not clear-cut. There was enough guilt among the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats to allow the argument--embraced enthusiastically in the Pentagon and in part of the CIA--that this was a war of "ancient enmities" and the United States shouldn't get involved. It is true that the military never got very good answers to its incessant questioning of what was the precise military objective and what political end would be served by achieving it. But it is also true that Bosnia proved the United States incapable of managing a complex war requiring a limited use of force for limited objectives. The paradigm of the Gulf War was much more welcome; it proved that if you arrayed overwhelming force you probably wouldn't have to use it, or, if you did, your preponderance would be so great that you would win without significant casualties. The trouble was that, with ethnic rivalries rampant in the post-Cold War world, future challenges were likely to look more like Bosnia than like the Gulf.

Having retreated from the brink in Bosnia, President Bush near the end of his administration made a surprising move on Kosovo. He dispatched a message to Milosevic threatening forceful retaliation if the Serbian leader tried a power play in Kosovo. The strong implication was that targets in Serbia proper would not be spared. The paradoxical nature of this threat came from the fact that Milosevic already controlled Kosovo. He had deployed a heavy military and police presence there. A further clampdown on the Albanian population could be accomplished in days if not hours, though subsequent guerrilla warfare and/or terrorism by the Albanians would be likely. It remains a mystery why the U.S. military would object so strenuously to punitive bombing against Serbian artillery in Bosnia, where Serbian control was still contested, while accepting it in Serbia, where Milosevic's control was near total. It is not clear how seriously Milosevic took the threat.

The Bosnia Phase: Clinton

There is no doubt that Bill Clinton was dealt a bad hand in Bosnia. The best time for the United States to have made its mark on the Bosnian war was during the Bush administration. By the time Clinton took office, the Serbs had consolidated their hold on some 70 percent of the country and had put Sarajevo under siege. Clinton had sharply criticized Bush in the campaign for turning his back on human rights and democratic values. In the third week of his presidency, Clinton said that a failure to act in Bosnia "would be to give up American leadership."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in the administration's first comprehensive statement on Bosnia on February 10, 1993, painted U.S. interests in wide brushstrokes. He said that the United States had "strategic concerns," that the principle of internationally recognized borders was at issue, that the United States wanted to avoid the spread of hostilities and a river of refugees, and that Bosnia was a test of how the world "will address the concerns of ethnic and religious minorities in the post-Cold War world." Later in February the administration instituted a policy of air drops to besieged Bosnian towns. In this President Clinton had acted in the face of at least initial Pentagon opposition. The administration also refused to give early assent to the Vance-Owen Plan, assuming (incorrectly) that it was unacceptable to the Bosnian side, thus causing the Bosnians to expect more forceful help.

The early toughness on the part of the Clinton administration turned out to be ephemeral. The turning point was Secretary Christopher's ill-fated visit to Europe in May 1993 to sell the allies on a proposal to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia and to simultaneously use air power to pin the Serbs down ("lift and strike"). There is debate over how hard Secretary Christopher pushed the proposal in Europe; in any case the allies weren't buying. According to Elizabeth Drew in "On the Edge," the president lost faith in the lift-and-strike approach while Secretary Christopher was still in Europe. On Christopher's return the administration lapsed into the familiar pattern of rhetorical toughness accompanied by an unwillingness to use force.

What made Clinton retreat from the muscular approach he had followed in the campaign and in the first few months of his presidency? One factor was Clinton's relationship with the U.S. military, still headed by Colin Powell. Clinton's failure to serve in Vietnam made him the first postwar American president with no military record. His already fragile relationship with the Pentagon was weakened further by his ill-fated attempt to take on the issue of gays in the military early in his mandate. Clinton was simply not in a strong enough position to override the Pentagon's opposition to the commitment of U.S. military forces to Bosnia. There was another factor as well--Clinton's distaste, or at least discomfort, with military solutions. A constant pattern through the first two years of the administration was the search for diplomatic solutions even when they were impossible or irrelevant.

During the rest of 1993 force options were occasionally considered and always discarded. The Defense Department opposed the use of ground troops in relief of Sarajevo during discussions in July. Air strikes, considered in August, led to second thoughts by the president and token moves by the Serbs allowing a U.S. backdown. The outcome of the up-and-down deliberations over the summer was the U.N.'s declaration of six "safe areas" (towns besieged by the Serbs), but with no strategy for protecting them.

Clinton's advisers, a combination of hawks and doves, never reached consensus on a consistent policy line. Vice President Al Gore and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, the most consistent hawks, were usually joined by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. The military was militantly dovish, particularly while Powell was at its head; Powell easily overrode the more militarily optimistic views of Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak. Defense Secretary Les Aspin favored a cease-fire, a humanitarian gesture acceptable more to the Serbs than to the Muslims. Secretary Christopher varied, but following his failed May 1993 visit tended to oppose the use of U.S. troops.

With such flickering advice, strong presidential views were needed. But they were never forthcoming. Clinton himself seemed torn about what to do. His and his aides' rhetoric reflected the absence of strategy. How they described the Bosnian war naturally suggested how the United States should deal with it. The robust characterization by Secretary Christopher in his May 1993 press conference gave way to statements that Bosnia was a "European issue" or that it represented "ancient ethnic hostilities"--descriptions implying that there was nothing the United States could or should do. Moreover, the administration fell to using its support for lift-and-strike as an excuse for inaction--since the Europeans rejected it, the United States was stymied. Finally, the argument was made that, since the United States had no peace-keeping troops in Bosnia (in itself a sign of weakness), it was in a difficult position to urge the Europeans to get tough.

When it was not scrambling for reasons to avoid military intervention, the Clinton administration maintained the fairly consistent position that this was a war of aggression, the Serbs were the aggressors, and the Bosnians were the victims. This was also the overwhelming view of the U.S. Congress and the American press and public. The evidence supported this view. The first actions against Bosnia's unity had been taken by Karadzic in proclaiming autonomous Serbian areas in Bosnia, in withdrawing Serbian members from the Bosnian government and Parliament, and in setting up rival institutions. The policy of ethnic cleansing--the first use of apartheid in Europe since World War II--was directly attributable to Karadzic. And the murder of combatants and civilians was far more prevalent on the Serbian side than on the Muslim or Croatian sides.

Moreover, the Yugoslav army had infiltrated its troops into Bosnia as the Croatian war wound down; through little more than a change of insignia, they became the nucleus of the 80,000-man Bosnian Serb army--a formidable military force dwarfing the Bosnian military. Milosevic's complicity was apparent not only in the arms and equipment which the Yugoslav army supplied to the Bosnian Serbs throughout the war, but also in the fact that irregulars from Serbia were active in Bosnia during the early months of the war (in fact, they committed some of the worst atrocities). As with Bush, the issue with Clinton was not who was guilty, but what could the United States do about it.

There were of course real obstacles to the use of American force. They included: the risk to U.N. peacekeepers, the opposition of the U.N., the lack of consensus in NATO, the Russian support of the Serbs, and a Congress that was prepared to micromanage without a discernible strategy. Even so, one hawkish Congressional observer, Representative Lantos, felt that if the president had sought the Congress's support early in his term for a U.S. military response to the Serbs he would have gotten it.

The Congress itself was divided. The reigning issue was whether to unilaterally lift the arms embargo--a move strongly backed by Senator Dole. Before the 1994 elections the Senate and House foreign affairs leaderships opposed lifting the arms embargo on the grounds that the peacekeepers would be endangered, NATO would be split, other embargoes (read Iraq) would be weakened, and the military advantages were not persuasive. Those in favor of lifting the arms embargo wanted to help the Bosnian government by leveling the playing field. In most cases they did not contemplate the need for direct U.S. military involvement. This gave the lift proposal something of the aspect of a "free lunch" wish--the Muslims would be helped militarily and the United States could stay out. These two objectives, in fact, described the views of both the Clinton administration and the Congress. The surreal aspect of wanting something but not being willing to pay for it helped explain the absence of a consistent Executive or Legislative strategy for Bosnia.

The televised pictures of the 68 deaths in a bombing of the Sarajevo market in February 1994 stirred the media-reactive administration into helping to spark a NATO threat to the Serbs to withdraw their artillery from around the city. Russia contributed significantly to the credibility of the threat by warning its Serbian friends that this time NATO was serious. Backed by the credibility of force, the threat worked; the artillery was not used for over a year. But the lesson that a genuine threat of force could work was not learned. Subsequent air strikes were inconsistent, episodic, and militarily unimportant; one strike in May 1995 produced massive hostage-taking by the Serbs.

The negotiating track was one approach that everyone in the government and Congress could rally around. Negotiations did lead to one substantial success--the Bosnian-Croatian federation, achieved by the dogged work of an American negotiator, Charles Redman. For the most part, however, U.S. diplomacy, in order to look active in pursuit of near-impossible goals, amounted to a string of ascending and ultimately humiliating concessions to Milosevic. The Serbs, who realized early that the United States would not use force, could afford to sit back and let the Americans come to them.

By mid-1995, the disparate elements of the administration finally coalesced around a tougher policy. The impending election undoubtedly played a role in this change of heart. More broadly, it had become clear that the feckless European approaches would go nowhere and Bosnia would remain a bleeding sore for which the United States would be blamed. The overrated "CNN effect," which had failed to ignite two administrations over three years, finally began to make itself felt. Two events in the summer of 1995 opened the way to a concerted application of American power. Tudjman, with or without American complicity (the issue is under debate), launched a lightning raid on the Krajina, the largest Serbian area of Croatia sealed off by the Yugoslav army in 1991. The blitzkrieg was spectacularly and surprisingly successful; nearly all the Serbs fled. The Croatian victory transformed the balance of forces in western Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, had depended on the Krajina for both arms and men. Now the Bosnians and Croats began to win back territory they had lost earlier in the war. The second event was another mortar attack on the Sarajevo market, killing 38 people.

This time Clinton was ready. With the approach of a military equilibrium and the commission of another atrocious war crime, he won NATO's support for air attacks on Bosnian Serb communications and command and control. The pinpoint bombing campaign was carried out from August 30 to September 14; it resulted in Serbian agreement to negotiate an end to the war. Miraculously, all the American objections to the use of air power melted away, as the U.S. intervention--without the use of a single soldier on the ground--delivered the desired political result. Skillful diplomacy by the American negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, produced the Dayton agreement.

Dayton reflected all the weaknesses and ambiguities that had characterized the war. The Bosnian Serbs, who had constituted less than one-third of the population of Bosnia before the war, won 49 percent of the territory of Bosnia and their own political unit--Republika Srpska. The Muslims won the fragile, and probably unworkable, framework of a unitary Bosnian state, plus an undivided Sarajevo. The Croats may have been the major gainers. With their entity merged into the Bosnian-Croat federation, they could continue to function as, in effect, a part of Croatia.

This combination of weaknesses and grievances ensured a shaky peace. The 60,000-man NATO force mandated by Dayton was thus essential. The president's decision, made for electoral reasons, to limit American participation to a year verged on the irresponsible, since nobody considered a year to be enough time to get a genuine peace process started. The American commitment to arm the Bosnians was understandable in view of their weakness vis-ˆ-vis the Serbs; on the other hand, it ran the risk of increasing Serbian incentives to renew hostilities after departure of the NATO force.

The presence of American troops was a major deterrent to a breakdown of the Dayton cease-fire. Their departure would increase dangers significantly. Either a Clinton or a Dole administration would be faced with the difficult choice of how far to project American power into Bosnia's highly unstable future. Nobody wants an endless, Cyprus-like peace-keeping force; yet, a U.S. administration must be mindful of the destabilizing effects an American withdrawal might have. After withdrawal, it must be decided whether to maintain a residual threat of airpower against any violator of Dayton. Ideally, Bosnia should revert to becoming a European problem, but the history of Europe's failure there makes it unlikely that the United States can fully disengage.


The Bosnia issue contains a number of lessons for U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps most important is the likelihood that Bosnia will be a paradigm--perhaps already is--of the problems we will face in the early decades of the next century. If the United States doesn't lead in finding solutions to the general problem of ethnic conflict, nobody else will. For the world of peaceful commerce and investment and information exchange which President Clinton has projected, there will have to be some kind of "new world order" to prevent massive disruptions. This will require a much greater role for the international community, a reformed U.N., and an international mandate that recognizes the need on occasion to use force. The gratuitous U.N.-bashing currently indulged in by the U.S. Congress, and the administration's unhelpful restrictions on the U.S. role toward the U.N., are not hopeful signs that this reality has been grasped.

If more Bosnias are to be prevented, then an international preventive strategy must be explored. Here also the United States must lead. Prevention is inherently difficult, since, as noted, it must be undertaken before the circumstances which require it have arisen. But it is not impossible. After all, the Cold War was won primarily by a preventive strategy--deterrence. In the Bosnian crisis most of the deterrence has been self-deterrence by the West against its own actions.

A better understanding of the value of force must also be reached. The Serbs had a built-in advantage in Bosnia because they didn't shrink from force while the West did. Force, like diplomacy, must be an available tool. And, against common wisdom, sometimes it is better used early rather than after other remedies have been exhausted. This was true in the Bosnian war; U.S. air strikes in the summer of 1992 would almost certainly have brought the Serbs to a negotiated settlement and saved tens of thousands of lives.

Bosnia has also demonstrated how ineffectual the Congress can be in a complex foreign policy situation. Congress is capable neither of devising broad foreign policy strategies nor of micro-managing specific problems. It is a blunt instrument, preoccupied with posturing and short-term ends. Even when those ends are connected with such laudable principles as advancing democracy or defending human rights, the Congress is prone to act without sensitivity to longer-term consequences.

The Congress is useful and necessary in reflecting the mood of the country, but it is the president who must lead and act. Americans were divided over Bosnia--"a problem from Hell," as Secretary Christopher called it--but that is no excuse for lack of leadership. The country was divided over the Gulf, and President Bush led it through a successful war. It was divided over Haiti, and President Clinton took a risk that paid off. The president's decisive actions on Bosnia, late as they were, created a partial American consensus on that issue as well. The bottom line for Bosnia, as for all issues where the interests of the United States are engaged, is presidential leadership.

[*] Warren Zimmermann is a distinguished fellow of the New School for Social Research, and a professorial lecturer in European studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He has been a U.S. ambassador three times, including as chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Vienna CSCE Follow-Up Meeting (1986-89), and as the last U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1989-92).

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