Between War and Peace: How to Manage Threats to Global Security

By Lake, Anthony | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Between War and Peace: How to Manage Threats to Global Security


Lake, Anthony, Harvard International Review


What aspects of the conflict in Bosnia made it possible for the United States to intervene?

I think you need to look at any potential action both internationally and within the conflict itself. The primary obstacle to our intervention was not within Bosnia, or even within the region, but lay in the nature of our relationship with our European allies. Their strong commitment to the UN humanitarian mission in Bosnia meant that they had troops on the ground whom they believed would be put at great risk by a US military intervention. Therefore, they opposed our taking as strong measures as we wanted to. This was a source of some frustration to us, but I would occasionally remind myself that if there were US troops on the ground somewhere, and the Europeans took unilateral military action and put our troops at risk, all hell would break loose in Washington. We struggled with that for the first few years.

The turning point was in 1995 after Srebrenica. European public opinion shifted, and our allies were not looking forward to another winter on the ground in Bosnia where the humanitarian mission would be struggling. The European mood shift allowed us to proceed with military actions that helped produce the Dayton Accords. Another crucial factor was the formation of the federation between the Croatians and the Bosnians, which helped to create a balance of power on the ground. This provided a basis for a negotiated settlement; if one side or the other had been winning clearly, it would have been nearly impossible to negotiate any agreement. Finally, there was a growing will in Washington to act in a vigorous way. At the beginning, it was our instinct to see if there was some less costly way to solve the problem--for example, through the so-called lift-and-strike strategy, in which we would lift the arms embargo on Bosnia while using air power to compensate for Bosnian weakness until the arms flowed in. But we could not sell that to the Europeans, and that moved us towards a more vigorous path. It also came partly from US President Bill Clinton's growing confidence in acting as Commander-In-Chief.

If the secure spheres of influence were a factor in a negotiated settlement, what lessons can be drawn from Bosnia to help peacebuilding in Iraq, where the positions of authority are more nebulous?

One of the lessons is the need for patience in peacekeeping operations and the importance of thinking in political as well as pragmatic terms. But the dissimilarities are strong. In Iraq, we are not interposing ourselves in a situation where there is relative hostility among the parties. We are dealing with political and religious differences that have thankfully not crystallized to armed conflict. In Bosnia, our troops became involved in separating traditional combatants. Also, because the hatred between the groups was so strong, there was less of a nationalistic reaction against an international occupation. In Iraq, it is a race against time. On one hand, the United States needs to take the time to provide a measure of stability until there is a legitimate government, because the situation could well dissolve into civil war if the United States leaves too soon. On the other hand, the United States has a limited amount of time because the Iraqis, historically during the British occupation, had a strong nationalist distaste for international occupation. That distaste has not disappeared.

What components of the conflict made the outcome of the Bosnian intervention relatively successful from a peacemaking standpoint?

It serves as a commentary on peacekeeping in general that it is relatively successful. We are still a long way from real success in Bosnia. I think one thing that made the settlement somewhat easier is that there were relatively clearly defined areas of control between the Bosnian Serbs and the Croats and Bosnian Muslims, which made it easier to deal with the military and security issues. …

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Between War and Peace: How to Manage Threats to Global Security
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