A 'can talk, can't do' president: Bombs without responsibility is what Washington wants in Bosnia, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
THE US has finally found a culprit in the Balkans: a British officer who had the gall to say publicly that Washington's policies on Bosnia make no sense. Undiplomatic he may have been, but Brigadier Vere Hayes was merely expressing a feeling now privately shared by most European governments. And the problem is much more profound: seven months into its tenure, the Clinton foreign policy team is a walking disaster.

Almost every important initiative from the administration is now covered by one slogan or another. A strategy for meeting two potential wars at the same time was entitled 'win-hold win'. The military was instructed to apply a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell' to gay recruits. Bosnia's Muslims were initially offered a policy of 'lift and strike', while the Europeans are now threatened with a strategy of 'don't ask, tell'. This is truly the 'can talk, can't do' presidency.

There is no doubt that European governments have failed in the Balkans. Yet the US administration's parrot-like repetitions of this truism are neither profound nor very helpful. Stripped of sophisticated arguments, the reasons for the Balkans debacle are actually fairly simple: no Western government was ever persuaded that Yugoslavia actually mattered for European security. Humanitarian convoys, safe areas and no-fly zones: all were intended to find the median line between appearing to do something and becoming bogged down in the Balkans. And the irony is that, with every move, the West was sucked further and further into the cauldron, usually with little practical effect.

The US shares the blame for many of these policies. It was James Baker, then Secretary of State, who travelled to Belgrade to lecture the Yugoslav republics on why they should remain united, despite the indications that this merely encouraged Serb generals in their aggression. Croat cities were pulverised one after another while President George Bush was hawking his 'vision thing' by highlighting the supposed US victories in the Cold War and the Gulf. And the US joined Europe in recognising Bosnia without providing any assistance to a republic always destined for destruction.

With no oil reserves and little strategic importance, and bereft of ethnic lobbies in Washington, the Yugoslav nations and their plight were studiously avoided by every presidential candidate and media network. Bill Clinton's initial promise to be more 'active' in Bosnia was nothing but a careless remark, largely intended to score electoral points.

With some justification, the new administration claims to have inherited an impossible task in the Balkans: by the time Mr Clinton ended up in Washington, Bosnia was already carved up and millions were uprooted. The haphazard policy that was applied, however, merely compounded the problem.

Like the Europeans, idle Americans huffed and puffed. And like the Europeans, they always believed that Yugoslavia should be sorted out by someone else. Aggression and ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to succeed, Mr Clinton proclaimed. Quite so, but preventing aggression is an international responsibility, not one confined to a single continent. And when it came to upholding these principles, Washington suddenly claimed that it was up to the Europeans. The result was the worst of both worlds: Bosnians kept dying while the acrimony across the Atlantic grew.

The US, largely created by people who left their mother countries to escape the effects of nationalism, has always found it hard to understand ethnic and territorial disputes. Since ethnic violence within the US does not have territorial implications, it is usually seen as just a social problem. Generations of Americans have therefore believed that wars over territory and religion are simply fomented by wicked leaders: remove Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic and all will be well. According to this reasoning, every conflict must have a neat solution. Earlier this century President Woodrow Wilson put forward 14 points to sort out the world, four more than even God thought necessary. More modestly, Mr Clinton offered Bosnia only two: 'lift and strike'. The administration proposed to supply the Muslims with weapons while US planes bombarded the Serbs.

Nobody sought to explain why it should be more acceptable to multiply the carnage if the ultimate result would still be a carved-up state; the important thing was to have a plan, and Mr Clinton duly produced one.

America's 'surgical' air strikes, he promised, would be just enough to induce the Serbs to sign a peace agreement, but not so extensive that the Muslims would believe their old state would be recreated for them. Spraying people with bombs from the comfort of a Washington chair is a tactic that failed in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Somalia, but the Europeans were expected to believe it would somehow succeed to perfection in Bosnia.

Petulantly, the administration dismissed both the Vance-Owen proposals and the current Geneva negotiations as immoral exercises in rewarding aggression, without offering any alterative but its cherished air strikes which, in turn, were never designed to reverse Serbia's territorial gains. What is more, having refused to deploy a single soldier in Bosnia, Washington even proposed to start air attacks on its own. An administration which vowed to make the UN the core of international security is now accusing that organisation of cowardice simply because it refuses to stick a blue flag on whatever happens to be Washington's current whim. The US representative at the UN is now reduced to trading insults with an officer on the ground in Bosnia. The grand vision has become banality.

In fact, present US strategy has very little to do with Bosnia's plight. Its main concern is how to avoid sharing political blame for the ensuing Balkan disaster. Earlier this year, Washington appointed its Nato representative, Reginald Bartholomew, as a special envoy for the conflict. After a few forays to Moscow, he sank without trace and was replaced by none other than the former US ambassador to Haiti. At no stage did Mr Bartholomew offer to take part in negotiations or help to mediate. Bombs with no responsibility is what Washington wants; high principles proclaimed in the White House, left to others to apply.

Everyone in Washington now seems to believe that the Europeans are children who must be whipped into line by a 'resolute' US. This assessment is based on a fundamental misreading of the essence of transatlantic co-operation and has all the makings of a major disaster.

The US led Western Europe during the decades of the Cold War essentially because the overwhelming fear of the Soviet Union was shared on both sides of the Atlantic. Nato succeeded, moreover, not so much because it was headed by forceful US presidents (the Carter period was an embarrassing episode), but because the physical presence of American soldiers on European soil reassured everyone that the US would fight in all circumstances.

Yet a Serbian artillery shell cannot reach London or Washington and a government that wants to stop the war in the former Yugoslavia must be prepared to tell its people what is at stake. The moment the US refused to share the risk of deploying its own forces in Bosnia, it also forfeited the right to lead the Europeans in this conflict. Barking from the sidelines never inspires respect, and arguments do not become more convincing simply because they are shouted louder.

The US administration could still prevent the current dispute from inflicting permanent damage on its relations with Europe. It must start by admitting publicly that, like the Europeans, Washington has no alternative but to accept any deal reached in Geneva. Further, it should pledge its forces and resources to implement a peace settlement, pay its overdue contributions to the UN and accept that if this organisation is to retain any credibility, it cannot respond just to US priorities. True, all this would amount to an admission of defeat. But this offers one potential advantage.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic erred in Yugoslavia from the start. If the US is serious about leading Europe in the future, it must now share the continent's Balkan humiliation. The Yugoslav war is far from over; there will be plenty of opportunities for the West to redeem its credibility. And closer transatlantic co-operation would at least offer one positive result of the current carnage. So, another slogan for Mr Clinton's team: 'think, don't bark'. Or 'consult, don't bomb'.

The author is Director of Studies, Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)