Picking Up a Sputtering Torch: Finally the U.S. Takes the Lead in Bosnia

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Picking Up a Sputtering Torch: Finally the U.S. Takes the Lead in Bosnia

By Richard H. Curtiss

"This time Mr. Lake didn't ask, he informed. An administration official said that in his meetings in Bonn, Paris and London, Mr. Lake declared: `The president has made the following decisions. We want you to be with us.'"--Staff Writer Stephen Engelberg, New York Times, Aug. 19, 1995.

In the spring of 1993, Secretary of State Warren Christopher set out to visit America's Western European allies. His mission, some four months after President Bill Clinton had taken office, was to put into action the interventionist campaign rhetoric with which Clinton had taunted President George Bush's inaction in the first months after war broke out in Bosnia in April 1992.

Christopher, who announced he was in "listening mode," returned with the message that Britain and France, who had contributed troops to the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia, were not interested in advice from the United States until American troops joined their troops, and growing numbers from other nations, in the UNPROFOR forces on the ground.

Clinton was willing to put U.S. transport and combat aircraft at the service of the U.N. effort, but not to contribute troops on the ground. Therefore, for the following two years Bosnian Serbs, who constituted 31 percent of the pre-independence population of Bosnia but were occupying 70 percent of the land, undertook with impunity vicious and often murderous "ethnic cleansing" measures against Muslims and Croats, who had constituted 44 percent and 17 percent of the population respectively. The Serb measures, which were particularly harsh against the Muslims, obviously aimed to turn their military occupation into a permanent one.

The Bosnian government, a multi-sectarian institution in which Serb and Croat military and civilian officials were represented along with the predominant Muslims, dug in to hold the cities, but remained largely dependent upon United Nations troops to feed the civilian populations and, in the case of six "safe areas" including the capital, Sarajevo, protect them.

Peace plans advanced by United Nations and European Union negotiators called for semi-autonomous cantons within Bosnia that would give Bosnian Serbs control over 49 percent of the land and a combined Muslim and Croat federation control over the rest. The Muslims and Croats accepted the plans, but Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic rejected them.

By this spring, rapid changes on the ground had made a bad situation intolerable. Serbs stepped up their indiscriminate shelling of Sarajevo, overran the safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa, apparently killing all Muslim men of military age who fell into their hands, and were closing in on two more isolated safe areas in Gorazde in the east and in Bihac, an isolated pocket along the Croatian border, in the west.

Islamic countries overcame their chronic divisions sufficiently to announce they would no longer observe the United Nations arms embargo on all of the six republics and two autonomous areas that had constituted former Yugoslavia, but which was preventing only the legitimate, and landlocked, Bosnian government from obtaining arms. France and Britain announced that if the embargo was lifted, they would withdraw their troops, which provided the backbone of UNPROFOR.

Both houses of the U.S. Congress, over President Clinton's objections, voted to drop U.S. observance of the embargo and congressional leaders urged a policy of "lift and strike," meaning lift the embargo and strike, from the air, any Serb forces that tried to take advantage of the U.N. withdrawal before rearmed Bosnian troops were able to defend themselves.

Whether Congress can override a Clinton veto will only become clear when it returns from its August recess.

President Clinton's belated announcement in July to White House National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and other members of his foreign affairs inner circle that "the status quo is not acceptable" was prompted by the congressional vote, reports of the massacres of prisoners in Srebrenica and Zepa, and the increasing realization that, if the problem goes unsolved through another winter, it could be even worse and force involvement of American troops to extricate U. …