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The Choice in the Balkans

The lightning Croatian victory in the Krajina region of Croatia has changed the face but not necessarily the essence of the war in the Balkans. By force of arms, as impressive as it was illegal, the Croats have accomplished what years of negotiation could never have achieved for them—they have recovered the gateway to the Dalmatian coast, with its lucrative tourist industry, without having to give political autonomy to the Krajina’s Serbian population. Virtually that entire population, a fixture in the Krajina since the days of Maria Theresa, was either expelled or intimidated into flight by a military operation as comprehensive, and perhaps even as ruthless, as the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina’s Croatian inhabitants by the Serbs during the Serbo-Croat war of 1991.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman’s revenge for his humiliation in that war has now won back for Croatia most of the territory it lost to the Serbs four years ago. The exception is Eastern Slavonia, an oil-and-soil-rich region contiguous to Serbia, which the Serbs seem determined to defend. The Bosnian side is also taking satisfaction from the Croatian victory. The headlong flight of the Krajina Serbs—reputedly the toughest fighters in the Balkans, heirs to the warriors brought to the Krajina by the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century to defend the Empire’s military frontier against the Turks—has shattered the myth of Serb invincibility. The Bosnian Serb leadership has become divided by a power struggle between the civilian leader, Radovan Karadzic, and the commander-in-chief, General Ratko Mladic. The Bosnian and Croatian armies have moved quickly to exploit the disarray of the Serbian forces along the Croatian border in a bid to reconquer territory in western Bosnia.

Bosnian triumphalism may be short-lived. The Serbs have not been beaten in Bosnia. With the presentation of a new American peace plan, the Bosnian Serb leaders are talking peace, but they have not reduced their capacity for war. They may be reinforced by the tens of thousands of Krajina Serbs, disgraced and vengeful, who have poured into Bosnia from Croatia. Nor has the Serbian military position weakened in all parts of Bosnia. In July the Serbs captured two “safe areas” in the east, Srebrenica and Zepa, leaving a third, Gorazde, exposed. They still have the capacity to threaten Sarajevo.

The future actions of Serbia and Croatia may determine whether the Serbian reversal in Croatia is a turning point or just an interlude in the Bosnian war. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a nationalistic opportunist rather than an opportunistic nationalist, has been consistently willing to settle for less in Bosnia than Karadzic or Mladic is. Milosevic does not share Karadzic’s obsession with ethnic apartheid. In Serbia, where a third of the population is non-Serb, he has been content to impose restrictions on minorities rather than get rid of them. On the territorial question, in a Time interview on July 17, before the Croatian attack on the Krajina, he reiterated his support for the five-nation contact group plan of 1994, which would leave the Serbs with 49 percent of Bosnia rather than the 65 to 70 percent they now hold.

Nevertheless, Milosevic has every reason to maintain his support for the Bosnian Serbs, especially now that he is under fire at home for abandoning the Serbs in the Krajina. While he detests Karadzic, he maintains close ties with General Mladic, who cleansed the Krajina of Croats in 1991, has been indicted for war crimes in Bosnia, and is given to statements such as the one he made to Der Spiegel in November 1994: “Our aim remains the unification of all Serbian lands. Borders are drawn with blood.” There is no doubt that, contrary to his own claims, Milosevic is assisting the Bosnian Serb war effort in a major way. The Bosnian Serb army is dependent on the Belgrade-based Yugoslav army for fuel, spare parts, and financial support, as well as for the sophisticated air defense system that shot down the US pilot Scott O’Grady. The Serbian president is masterful at posturing as a moderate. But his pose has its limits. Following the Krajina debacle, he must maneuver to avoid a second defeat in Bosnia.

The other question mark is Tudjman. The Croatian leader appears to see current advantage in a close military coalition with the Bosnians; that is also what his friends in the West want. But Tudjman is a narrow-minded nationalist and is pressed domestically by confidants, like his defense minister, who are even more extreme than he. Their plans for Bosnia do not involve fighting for territory only to turn it over to the Muslims. Tudjman has never hidden his view that Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is a dangerous Muslim fundamentalist intent on injecting an Islamic state into Europe. Candid in his greed, Tudjman has shared with several Western politicians his opinion that Bosnia would be best divided between Serbia and Croatia.

The territorial changes in Croatia recall the shape of a division of territory rumored to have been secretly discussed by Tudjman and Milosevic back in 1992. According to reports of that deal, Serbia would concede Croatian sovereignty in the Krajina, while the Croats would let Eastern Slavonia go to Serbia. Tudjman would be compensated for the loss of Croatian territory with a large piece of Bosnia, with Serbia getting the rest. The Bosnian Muslims would be left with little or nothing. Whether or not Tudjman is prepared to go this far, he remains an ally of doubtful reliability to the Bosnians.

The extensive shifts in territory and population over the past two months have led the Clinton adminstration to undertake a major new negotiating effort, an attempt to show leadership that is welcome. The US plan, building on the recent developments, preserves the 1994 contact group approach but involves “quantity for quality” territorial trades, creating more compact Bosnian and Bosnian Serb units. The timing is right; not since the Bosnian war began in 1992 have conditions been so propitious for a settlement. Yet unfulfilled ambitions remain. Unless Tudjman recovers Eastern Slavonia, he will continue to cast covetous eyes on Bosnia; he learned this summer that force pays and negotiations do not. The Bosnian Serbs will be reluctant to give back the large pieces of territory (nearly a third of what they have seized) required by the plan. It is the Bosnians, however, who may have the most to lose in the American initiative. With renewed arms commitments from the Islamic countries and the possibility of recapturing more land than the plan would give them, they are understandably more interested in fighting than in talking. A fissure has already opened between Izetbegovic and his more militant prime minister, Haris Silajdzic.

The biggest question about the American plan is whether the Clinton administration is prepared to use force to back it up. In the past, Clinton—supported by the British, top birds in the European dovecote—has treated negotiations as a substitute for, not an accessory to, the use of military power. If the Serbs smell Western weakness once again, the plan will fail. If the Serbs are intransigent, either in rejecting an agreement or cheating on its implementation, the US adminstration seems to have in mind a multilateral lifting of the arms embargo against the Bosnians, arming and training of the Bosnian army, and continued NATO air protection. The critical issue is whether the United States is willing to use—and to persuade its allies to accept—major NATO air strikes.

Another issue is what the administration would do if the Bosnian government, sensing a reversal of fortune in its direction, stalled on the American plan in hopes of winning back more territory. In that event, the US would incline toward a lifting of the arms embargo and a withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping forces—“lift and leave.” Without the promise of NATO air power in support of the Bosnians, however, the policy could quickly become “lift and drift.” It would give the Bosnians unrestricted access to tanks and heavy artillery, but it would also give the Bosnian Serbs a strong incentive to strike for a quick victory before the weapons had been delivered and the Bosnian soldiers trained to use them. This also applies to the heavy weapons of the Krajina Serbs that have fallen into Bosnian hands. The prospect of a much stronger Bosnian force could even persuade the cautious Milosevic to send the Yugoslav army, overtly or covertly, across the Bosnia–Serbia border in a preemptive operation.

The resolution to lift the arms embargo passed by the US Congress and vetoed by President Clinton suffers the same defects. It would be one thing if the Congress intended the United States to lead NATO forces to the rescue of the Bosnians. But the reason the resolution commanded such large majorities was the belief that it would keep the US out of the conflict by helping the Bosnians get the weapons to fight their own war. It would be tragic if the Bosnians were made to pay for the Serbian defeat in Croatia by being pressured into a premature settlement or encouraged to continue the war without adequate Western military support.

Negotiators, pushing more-or-less equal adversaries toward an outcome minimally acceptable to all, can easily lose sight of whether a result is really fair in their rush to achieve it. The European approach already betrays an unseemly haste to lift economic sanctions from Serbia before Milosevic has delivered on any commitments he might make. Western leaders need to remember the basic issues in this war.

First, this is not just a civil war. Milosevic and the Yugoslav army have been complicit in Bosnian Serb oppression from the very beginning. Even if it were a civil war, that would not excuse Western inaction in the face of the Serb aggression and the atrocities now being meticulously catalogued by the United Nations war crimes tribunal.

Second, Western interests are more engaged than many leaders pretend. If they were not, would Bosnia have been a front-page story for three years? Western, and American, resolve, the stability of Europe, the future ofNATO and theUN, and the moral value of defending a multinational society against the aggression of ethnic supremacists—all these are major Western interests. Bosnia is therefore worth the political capital and military risks necessary to produce a just result.

And third, even at this late stage the West can make a difference, but only if negotiations are assisted by the credible threat of Western military force. Western leaders cannot trust the Croatian army to turn the tide for the Bosnians; the Croats have different, if sometimes congruent, objectives. The dramatic shifts in the Bosnian landscape should not obscure the essential fact that the purposeful use of NATO air power may be the only feasible and effective instrument for bringing a decent territorial settlement to the Bosnian victims of aggression.

During the current rounds of negotiations, the Serbs should be told, both in Belgrade and in Bosnia, that any aggressive military actions, including the shelling of Sarajevo, will be met with a determined, and if necessary prolonged, campaign of NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb military targets. They should be “disproportionate”—not limited to putting a few tanks out of commission, but aimed at taking out such targets as the Serbian artillery around Sarajevo and the Serbian air defense system. Washington favors broader flexibility to hit hard, but has been frustrated by UN foot dragging and European caution.

There is in the United States a tendency to denigrate air power when not supplemented by ground forces; the Gulf War and Vietnam are often cited. In fact, air power was so effective in the Gulf that the coalition ground forces met little opposition and suffered few casualties. In Vietnam, as Robert S. McNamara makes clear in his recent memoir, the real problem was a spineless South Vietnamese government and an army that would not fight. Fortunately, the Bosnians are not South Vietnamese. They have a resolute, if occasionally squabbling, leadership and an army which, though underequipped, is larger and tougher than that of the Serbs. Air strikes, in inflicting direct damage, would also assist the ground operations of this 120,000-man force.

Moreover, the Bosnian Serbs are not North Vietnamese. Far from being intensely committed fighters for their country or their ideology, they are an army with poor morale engaged in a sordid land-grab. With only 31 percent of the prewar Bosnian population, they held as private property 28 percent of the republic’s land, not the 70 percent that Karadzic and Milosevic both claim is rightfully theirs.* Nor are they being asked to give back everything they have taken. At worst, they will come away from a negotiated settlement with nearly half the territory of Bosnia, an outcome that Milosevic, at least, has already accepted.

There are drawbacks to the use of air power. The vulnerability of the UN Protection Force is the main one. Milan Vego, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina who teaches at the US Naval War College, writing in the Washington Post on August 13, estimates that only 8,500 of the 24,670 UN peacekeepers are deployed in areas under Serbian control or within Serbian reach. If possible, they should be withdrawn or at least moved out of danger. Even so, NATO must prepare for the possibility that the Serbs will take hostages. With no Americans in the peacekeeping force, it may be easy for Secretary of Defense Perry to say that hostage taking must not impede any military operation. But will that be the view of the British prime minister or the French president if his soldiers are captured? The only answer, which unfortunately will not comfort those at risk, is to escalate military pressure sharply if the Serbs murder a hostage—by bombing their capital Pale, for example. There is no alternative to firmness. Nothing is possible if the Serbs are left with unlimited possibilities for blackmail.

Winning NATO support for a campaign of air strikes, while difficult, would not be impossible, particularly if it were tied to a negotiating position favored by the allies. Much would depend on an unwavering determination on Clinton’s part to involve American airmen so that those European countries with peacekeeping forces could not argue that the Americans are prepared only to risk other people’s lives. The prospect of bringing the war to a decent and early outcome should be a strong point to those who want to limit risks—UN fatalities in Bosnia are already only twenty-nine fewer than the total Allied combat deaths in the Persian Gulf War. The Russians would object to air strikes but probably not block them. The Yeltsin government may even see a stake in a conclusion that could be portrayed as serving Serbian interests; it would remove an issue on which Russian nationalists have feasted for two years.

Faint-hearted Western leaders have dwelt interminably on the risks in using force. They have given much less attention to the risks in not using it. The Croatian triumph has not diminished those risks. The greatest danger would be a Serbian drive to take the most important military objective remaining to them—Sarajevo. Not only has Sarajevo been the capital of Bosnia, with a Muslim plurality, for centuries, it also represents the best in Bosnia’s multi-ethnic tradition. Despite Serbian shelling, there are still some 250,000 people left in the city, 50,000 of them Serbs who have ignored or defied Karadzic’s order to join his side. Karadzic has made no secret of his plans to capture the city, make it his capital, and build walls through it so that Serbs would be physically separated from Muslims and Croats.

It is easy to imagine what would happen if the Bosnian Serbs took Sarajevo. There would be reprisals against the city’s Serbs, whom Karadzic has called traitors; many would be executed. Most of the Muslims and the few remaining Croats would flee, and their numbers would be swelled by the panicked flight of other Bosnians at the news of the fall of the capital. In its numbers and its tragic costs this flight would surely exceed all others in Europe since World War II. Moreover, a Serbian victory of this magnitude would mean that the more than a million Bosnian refugees who have been taken in temporarily by Croatia, Germany, and other Western European countries could not return home. Permanent resettlement would have to be found for them in Western Europe and North America—another unprecedented challenge to compassion and resources.

The fall of Sarajevo would seriously damage the Bosnians as an effective fighting force. Whether the Serbs and Croats then turned on each other, or else made a cynical deal to divide up Bosnia, the result would be the creation of swollen Serbian and Croatian ethnic states, probably led by racial supremacists. The prognosis would be for decades of violence, involving the two fiercest antagonists in the Balkans—Serbia and Croatia—teeming with displaced irridentists and facing each other across new borders drawn, in Mladic’s words, “with blood.” As for the Muslims, the only people in Bosnia who did not want their state to be ethnically divided, they could well turn into the fanatical and dangerous fundamentalists they are now wrongly accused of being. The possibilities of an even larger Serbo-Croat war, of Muslim guerrilla warfare and terrorism, and of a Serbian civil war cannot be discounted.

Western leaders have congratulated themselves for “containing” the war in Bosnia. But they have failed to contain Tudjman, and Milosevic has been contained not by their actions but by the war’s long duration, which has deterred him from opening a second front in Kosovo or Macedonia. A convincing display of Western resolve in Bosnia would be the strongest way to contain Milosevic. A lack of Western firmness leading to a Serbian success there would encourage him to build his Greater Serbia where he could. Milosevic’s army and police dominate Kosovo, but they have not pacified it. He could be tempted to try a campaign of extensive ethnic cleansing, driving many of the two million Albanians across the Albanian and Macedonian borders. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have warned Milosevic sternly on Kosovo. But if NATO fails to contest Bosnia, where it has major military assets, he may not pay much attention to a threat over Kosovo, where it has far fewer. Macedonia is a longer shot for Milosevic, but it was part of Serbia between the world wars and there are just enough Serbs there (about 4 percent of the population) to form a basis for agitation.

The broader effects of a Serbian victory in Bosnia look equally discouraging.NATO is engaged in the process, pressed hardest by the United States and Germany, of expanding its membership and commitments into Eastern Europe. The assumption of new commitments to shed blood for Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic does not comport well with NATO’s shameful failure to risk lives for Bosnia. If Bosnia falls, not only will NATO’s expansion look ludicrous, but serious roles for NATO anywhere else will be hard to imagine.

The world has not found leadership, resolve, toughness, or reliability in the Western, particularly the American, approach to Bosnia. This does not mean that every obscure tribal chieftain will consult the reports from Gorazde before he launches his next attack on his ethnic rivals. It does mean that dictators pay attention to probable Western reactions to their planned assaults, as we learned with North Korea in 1950 and with Iraq in 1990. The same two countries are undoubtedly taking our measure again, as are others.

The West’s desire to avoid risks in Bosnia has led to political posturing, efforts to blame others, distortion of the real problems, exaggeration of the prospects for negotiation, and denigration of the only instrument—force—capable of producing a fair settlement. The Croats have shown the world what military power can do; unfortunately, their power cannot be counted on to help the Bosnians. OnlyNATO’s power can do that. If it is not used, or at least credibly threatened, the best negotiating opportunity in three years may slip away. The Serbs would recover the initiative and tighten the noose on Sarajevo. A Serbian victory would bring far worse consequences than any imaginable Western intervention. It would be shameful if the West, through lack of will and American leadership, allowed that to happen.

August 24, 1995

  1. *

    These figures appear in Norman Cigar’s new book, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of Ethnic Cleansing (Texas A & M University Press, 1995).

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