Feb 9, 1996
Twenty thousand U.S. troops are once again occupying foreign soil, this time in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a 60,000 troop multi-national force. Their stated purpose is to enforce a peace treaty which was agreed to by the three sides, Serbs, Croats and Muslims; negotiated at a U.S. air force base in Dayton, Ohio; and brokered by the Clinton administration. According to the settlement, Bosnia is to be divided into two separate zones, with 51% controlled by a coalition of Croats and Muslims and 49% controlled by Bosnian Serbs.
In justifying sending the troops, Clinton resurrected the usual humanitarian rhetoric that the U.S. most often uses when it goes to war or occupies countries: to "stop atrocities" and "save children from slaughter." The fact is that the U.S. decided to intervene only after 200,000 people had already been killed, hundreds of thousands starved, raped and wounded, and more than two million people turned into refugees. If U.S. policy were geared toward saving lives, the U.S. certainly had a strange way of going about it.
Historically, the U.S. has had only a minor economic and political presence in the Balkans, including Yugoslavia. Under the Bush and Clinton administrations, the U.S. allowed the major European powers - Germany, France and Britain - along with the various leaders of the Yugoslav republics, to take the initiative in dealing with the crisis in Yugoslavia and Bosnia.
Yugoslavia was an assemblage of several small former Balkan states and ethnic groups. From 1945 to 1980, it held together in part due to the authority that Marshal Tito had won in the struggle to liberate the area from foreign invasion. But after Tito died in 1980, there was little to stop the ascendancy of various leadership cliques who calculated that by breaking out of the federal Yugoslav structure, they could increase their own power. By early 1991, the leaders of Slovenia and Croatia were well advanced in their plans to secede.
However there was no way that secession could take place peacefully. These leaders represented themselves as the leaders not so much of countries as of a particular ethnic group. They based their claims on old myths and prejudices that for 40 years under Tito had been buried. However simplistic Serbia for the Serbs, or Croatia for the Croatians sounded, there was no way that it could work peacefully. The people of the various ethnic groups did not live nicely divided into their own assigned republics or regions. They were scattered across many republics. There was a large Serbian minority in Croatia, as well as Bosnia. Croats also lived in Bosnia. Albanians lived in Serbia, etc. The only way to break up the country along ethnic lines was through civil war and what we have come to know as "ethnic cleansing."
The dangers that a Yugoslav break-up would lead to civil war were well-known. The big imperialist powers in Europe and the U.S. all formally opposed it. However, these powers were also competing with each other to expand their own trade, investment and spheres of influence in the area. And their own business interests were too much for the European powers to resist. Germany, Europe s largest economic power, broke ranks and recognized Slovenia and Croatia after they seceded on June 25, 1991. At that point, Britain and France followed suit.
Rather than discouraging secession and all that it entailed, the bloody civil wars, ethnic cleansing and massacres, the major European powers encouraged it, backing the different sides. The U.S. stood by, letting Europe take the initiative.
Hours after Slovenia declared its independence, civil war broke out. It soon spread to Croatia. And this lit the fuse for the future civil war in Bosnia.
The leadership cliques in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina recklessly announced that they too wanted to secede from what had become the rump Yugoslav state dominated by Serbia. These cliques were already competing over who would get what. Once again, the power struggles were based on ethnic divisions. But there was no dominant ethnic group. The Muslim, Serb and Croat leaders proposed to partition Bosnia. This idea was encouraged by Croatia and Serbia, which were both probing to see how much of a chunk they could take out of their weaker neighbor.
With all the ethnic groups in Bosnia intermingled, often even living together in the same families through marriage, independence and partition had its own cruel logic. But this did not discourage England and France from declaring that partition was the only possible solution. They even offered to help. And the U.S. did not oppose any of this.
Shortly after Bosnia declared independence, the European Community (E.C.) under the leadership of Britain and France put forward the first of many plans for the partition of Bosnia, this one called the Lisbon plan. According to the plan, Bosnia would be divided into three ethnically based "cantons," one Bosnian or Muslim, another one Orthodox or Serb, and a third Croatian or Catholic. The U.S. threw its support behind this plan in the U.N., which endorsed it. The U.S. and the major powers of the E.C. insisted that only by separating the ethnic groups from each other could they avoid war.
In April 1992, the different ethnic leaders in Bosnia plunged the country into civil war. Ethnic cleansing became the means to construct new power bases on the basis of ethnic identity.
The U.S., E.C., and U.N. supposedly searched for a compromise along ethnic lines. They came up with a proposal to divide Bosnia still further. A conference in London set up a negotiating team in which the Secretary General of the U.N. was represented by ex-U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the E.C. was represented by Lord David Owen, a former British Foreign Minister. In the fall of 1992 they formulated the Vance-Owen plan. Instead of dividing Bosnia into 3 cantons, this plan divided it into 10 provinces. The Muslims, Serbs and Croats would each constitute a majority in their 3 provinces. In Sarajevo, the capital and largest city, no ethnic group would constitute a majority, but it would be governed by some sort of overall "Bosnian" government. The plan was quickly rejected.
But one consequence of this new "peace" plan was to ignite civil war in and around Mostar. According to the Vance-Owen plan, Mostar with a large Muslim population was supposed to be given over to the Croats. So Bosnian Croat armies and gangs went about trying to kill or expel all the Muslims. The Vance-Owen plan, with its proposal to give them the city, was their justification.
Besides proposing to divide up Bosnia further, the U.S. and European powers claimed that they were trying to limit the war and relieve the suffering of the brutalized population. But these "humanitarian" measures worked differently than advertized.
When the war began, the U.S. and E.C. immediately imposed an arms embargo on all sides. Their claim was that this would choke off the fighting by restricting arms and ammunition. On the contrary, the arms embargo only reinforced those already with the arms, in this case the Bosnian Serbs, since they had access to the heavy weapons of the old Yugoslav Army that Serbia now controlled. Neither did the arms embargo really stop arms and ammunition from pouring into Bosnia from all over the world. It only raised the price of their purchase price, and therefore the profits of the arms dealers. Iran, as well as Turkey and other Muslim countries began supplying the Muslims and Croats. The Russians continued to arm the Serbs. But the Western arms merchants were not less active in the region. The U.S. was not about to oppose its own allies and arms merchants.
Where did these different sides get the money to pay for arms? One important source was all the humanitarian aid that was sent over through the U.N., Red Cross and other humanitarian groups. Local armies and gangs hijacked the convoys and trains, stole the supplies and sold them on the black market. Thus, humanitarian aid often bolstered the armed gangs and armies which were attacking the very population that the aid was meant to help.
The U.N. declared a number of towns to be "safe havens" or "protected enclaves," as an emergency measure to save the lives of people in a few specific predominantly Muslim enclaves. The first safe haven was declared in the spring of 1993 when Muslim armed forces in the eastern town of Srebrenica surrendered to Serbian forces under the auspices of the U.N. This left the population in Srebrenica open to attack. When the U.N. declared Srebrenica to be a "safe haven," humanitarian relief was to be delivered and the civilian population was to be guaranteed safety from Serbian attack by U.N. peace-keeping forces. This protected status was extended to include four other towns and the main Bosnian city, Sarajevo.
However, most of the safe havens happened to be deep in territory that the U.S. and the European powers considered to be Serbian. The promises of protection amounted to little or nothing. All the safe havens continued to come under heavy attack, with thousands dying. Convoys of humanitarian supplies were cut off for months at a time. Eventually two out of the five safe havens were actually overrun by the Serbs while the Blue Helmeted soldiers of the U.N. stood by and did nothing. And there was such heavy damage at a third, Gorazde, that it might as well have been overrun.
While the news generally tried to picture the war as just senseless blood-letting, every aspect of it had its own logic. It is not easy to uproot entire populations from their homes, towns, farms and jobs. But the techniques are tried and true. Terror is necessary. Red Cross and U.N. refugee camps become way stations to move refugees from their old bombed-out and shelled homes to the bombed-out quarters of ones supposed enemies, or maybe just to a camp in a new area that goes by the name of a "homeland."
At the very least, humanitarian aid was not an answer to the atrocities. And all too often, humanitarian aid became a tool in the hands of the strong to terrorize the weak.
For two years, the U.S. and European powers allowed the war to be played out. Within the first three months of the war, the Serbs were able to take 70% of the territory. The Croats seized another 15%. The Muslims were in the weakest position. But the Serbs were unable to win the war outright, while the Muslims kept on holding out, hoping for some kind of international support. The Muslims leaders even sometimes shelled their own population or deprived people of vital necessities, playing on their victim status in order to provoke the U.S. to more forcefully support Bosnia. Wrote retired U.S.A.F. General Charles G. Boyd in Foreign Affairs (Fall 1995), "... during the winter months of 1993-94, the Sarajevo municipal government helped deny running water to the city s population... The denial had less to do with water purity than with the opposition of some Sarajevo officials who were reselling U.N. fuel donated to help distribute water. And, of course, the sight of Sarajevans lining up at water distribution points, sometimes under mortar and sniper fire, was a poignant image."
And so the war dragged on. But the longer the war lasted, the more chance that it could spread to regions where there were already tensions and border disputes, such as between Greece and Macedonia, as well as to bordering Eastern European countries, such as Rumania and Hungary.
The U.S. and the European powers began in earnest to search for a way to force and cajole each of the local Bosnian forces to accept a compromise solution. The main obstacle to a possible compromise was that the Croats and Muslims had shown that they would never agree to a plan that let the Bosnian Serbs continue to control most of the territory. So the task that the U.S. and the European powers set themselves was to weaken the Serbs while strengthening the Muslims and Croats.
This explains why the news media followed suit and suddenly began to picture the Serbs as responsible for the war and the atrocities - as if there really were any difference in the willingness of any of the sides to carry out these atrocities.
At the point that actual intervention became necessary, the U.S. took the lead diplomatically and militarily. At the NATO summit of January 11, 1994, Clinton announced that NATO was in favor of threatening air strikes, especially to lift the Serb siege of Sarajevo. The U.N. and European Union (the successor to the European Community) suddenly were no longer the main international organizations to deal with the crisis. The U.S. would act primarily through NATO, which it could control more directly without inconvenient interference from minor powers.
At the same time, with the formation of the Contact Group, the U.S. also took direct control of the negotiations, bringing all the most important allies, including France, Britain, Germany and Russia on board. The Contact Group then decided on the proportions for a peace settlement, with the Muslim-Croat side gaining 51% of the territory and the Bosnian Serbs, 49%.
Three weeks after the NATO summit, as if on cue, a mortar hit the main market in Sarajevo, killing 68 people. There was speculation that this attack could have been carried out by the Muslims themselves. In any event, the U.S. threatened the Serb forces surrounding the besieged city to move their heavy artillery 20 kilometers from the city. The Serb forces complied. The siege of Sarajevo was partially lifted. Obviously, the U.S. and European powers had decided long ago that Sarajevo would not belong to the Serbs, but to the Muslim government.
The U.S. quickly followed this up by arranging a cease fire between the Bosnian Croats and Muslims. On March 1, a settlement between the two sides was signed in Washington for a future federation of Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The settlement followed the ethnic pattern. Within the federation, there would be 8 cantons, with the breakdown being four Muslim, two Croat and two more, where the fighting was heaviest between the two sides, that would have no majority. This settlement freed up the Muslim and Croat forces, which had been fighting each other, to concentrate on their common enemy, the Serbs.
The U.S. then moved to isolate the Bosnian Serbs. In August 1994, the U.S. made an agreement with Slobodan Milosevic, the strongman of Serbia, who had been providing the Bosnian Serbs with much needed military aid. In return for a partial lifting of the economic embargo on Belgrade, Milosevic agreed to cut off all aid to the Bosnian army, and he closed the Serbian border to Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs were on their own. This settlement was no surprise, despite Milosevic s demagogic rhetoric about building a Greater Serbia, ready to take on the world. In fact, Milosevic had always shown that he was ready to play ball with the U.S. and the European powers. He had formally endorsed every "peace" plan that they had proposed.
Meanwhile the U.S. funnelled military aid to Croatia and the Bosnian army. U.S. military personnel were brought in as advisors to both armies. U.S. intelligence in Bosnia was openly scouting targets for bombing raids. All through 1994, a counter-offensive was being prepared.
This, however, was of little consolation for the people living in regions where ethnic cleansing was continuing. All through the summer of 1994, the supposed safe haven of Gorazde came under attack. The U.S. had to show that it would do something. It carried out a couple of symbolic air raids against Serb positions. These air raid amounted to little or nothing. The siege was not lifted. A cease fire was eventually arranged, but only after most of Gorazde had been destroyed and most of the population moved out.
In December 1994, Bosnia was visited by none other than Jimmy Carter, who arranged a four-month cease fire. As is his wont, Carter had kind things to say about the leaders of all the sides. Some may have seen them as bloody murderers, but Carter saw them only as devoted family men, with strong convictions. But whatever fatuous remarks Carter made, this truce allowed the forces being armed by the U.S. to gain time.
With the spring of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces launched attacks against two more safe havens, Srebrenica and Zepa, both of which fell. Massacres resulted and the regions were "ethnically cleansed." By July 1995, the news media were pronouncing that the Serbs had destroyed any credibility of the U.N., which had been charged with guarding the safe havens, and made a mockery of Clinton s policy.
However at the end of July, the long-awaited Croat offensive began. Within a week, Croat forces armed and advised by the U.S., attacked Serbs in Krajina, the part of Croatia bordering on western Bosnia. Serbia, which hitherto had claimed to support the Serbian population who had lived in this region for over a century, said nothing. No aid to them was forthcoming. As a result, 200,000 Serbs were cleared out of the area. It was the biggest single instance of ethnic cleansing in the war. In conjunction with this offensive, newly equipped Muslim forces also went on the offensive against Serbian forces in central Bosnia.
At the end of August, another mortar hit a crowded market in Sarajevo. Another horrible death toll provided a pretext for the U.S. to carry out the heaviest bombing of the war against Serb positions. While the bombing continued, press restrictions were so tight that virtually the only news that came out about the bombing was what was reported by the Pentagon press office. However, some reports filtered back indicating that several civilian targets, including a hospital, had been hit. This bombing was not only military, but political. It served as a reminder to all the sides of how destructive the U.S. could be.
By the end of September, the positions occupied by the different armed forces on the ground more closely resembled the map that the U.S. and European negotiators had earlier decided on. Clinton sent in a State Department team that shuttled back and forth to work out the main outlines of the settlement. The final negotiations between Bosnia s Alija Izetbegovic, Serbia s Milosevic and Croatia s Franjo Tudjman were held in the U.S. A signing ceremony took place in Washington. To placate its European allies, the U.S. allowed France to host the formal signing of the treaty, (which took place in the Elysée Palace during the general strikes that crippled Paris and the rest of France).
The peace treaty, of course, did not end the ethnic cleansing. It just set the conditions under which it could be finished off. The Serbs in the suburbs that surround Sarajevo are now being forced out. That was the price that they paid for not being able to conquer the city.
For the U.S. so far, the operation appears to be a success. While at the beginning of the war, the U.S. had played a secondary role, it has now emerged as the major power, again. And this has consequences all throughout Europe.
First, in Yugoslavia, the U.S. emerges as the main beneficiary from any rebuilding and investment. Wages in Bosnia, which had been low before the war, are now less than 10% of what they had been. Whoever wants to invest can benefit from this. There will also be some reconstruction, with talk of a five billion dollar fund coming from the IMF, World Bank and the major powers. U.S. companies will be in the front position to take advantage of that. Thus, the U.S. can emerge as a much more important economic player in an area in which it previously had little investment or trade.
Second, this also strengthens the U.S. position in Eastern Europe and Russia, not only in economic terms, but also political and military. This may set the stage for some kind of settlement over the Eastern European militaries role in regards to NATO.
Third, it strengthens the U.S. role in regards to its NATO partners, who, when given the chance, were not able to resolve their own crisis, but instead were racked by divisions between themselves. And so they unanimously agreed to call on the U.S. This means that the U.S. can more easily dictate terms to its European competitors about what they are going to do in Eastern Europe and Russia.
But all this assumes that the peace settlement actually takes hold. And this is a very big assumption. By early February, there were already signs that it was becoming seriously strained. All sides - Muslim, Serb, Croat - were beginning to position themselves to gain advantages at the expense of others. A new crisis erupted when Muslim forces arrested two high officers from the Bosnian Serb army. There were also reports of growing tensions between Muslims and Croats in Mostar.
In the short term, a crisis like this could light the fuse to another round of fighting or even war - this time with 20,000 U.S. troops caught on the ground.
But even if the U.S. and its European allies are able to defuse each of these crises as they come up, the situation will certainly remain unstable and explosive for a long time to come. A weakened Bosnia could further divide, with some of its parts becoming more closely linked or even absorbed into Croatia and Serbia, again stimulating old rivalries.
And even if Clinton s success does not blow up, the U.S. could find itself tied down for years in a costly occupation. Currently there are reports that every night, some warning shots are being taken at U.S. soldiers. The cold and tense winter that U.S. troops are now undergoing in Tuzla may not be their last.