Take Off the Blinders on Bosnia

George Kenney, the State Department's desk officer for Yugoslavia during the Bush administration, resigned in a policy protest in August 1992

Madeleine Albright made several significant steps toward Balkan peace last week, in particular her long overdue acknowledgment of the magnitude of the injustice against Serbs in Croatia. For the first time, she threatened an unrepentant Croatia with international sanctions similar to those applied to Serbia. But she did not go far enough. Albright must also acknowledge the perilous condition of Serbs in Bosnia.

Acting on mistaken popular impressions of victim and aggressor, the U.S. is arming Bosnian Muslims without sufficient safeguards against their renewing the war. Because popular impressions are so biased, senior administration officials dare not take account of legitimate Bosnian Serb interests and risk being tagged Serb apologists. But peace hangs by a thread: Once the Muslims and the Croats agree on how to share the spoils, they may launch a new war against the Serbian statelet, dramatically weakened over the past two years.

Classified U.S. analyses predict that the U.S. policy of arming the Muslims will snap that thread this year or next, just as soon as the Muslims acquire battlefield superiority and NATO steps sufficiently out of the way. But America must not be responsible for thousands more murders and deaths and massive civilian displacement.

Instead of trying to reenergize the Dayton peace process, a thinly veiled push for Muslim political dominance, Albright should undertake a baseline policy review to see what can realistically be done to keep the peace. She should produce this review regardless of whether it contradicts past administration moral claims on behalf of the Muslims.


Media accounts of Bosnia’s civil war portrayed the Muslims as victims, Serbs as responsible for 90% of the atrocities and Croats as vaguely both victim and aggressor. Too many reporters in Bosnia felt they should take the Muslim side; in so doing they confused their “greater truth” for the facts. Major papers and wire services, for example, routinely reported that 250,000 had died, implying a widespread slaughter of Muslims. The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, however, estimates a total of 25,000 to 55,000 killed on all sides during combat. Accounting for known civilian casualties and assuming all the declared missing are dead, it is difficult to see how total deaths could exceed 100,000. And the percentage of each ethnic group killed--slightly more than 2%--is almost identical. The proportions of those who were forcibly displaced are comparable, but the Bosnian Serbs, with about 700,000 refugees, may have suffered the most displacement in absolute terms.

In other words, while conventional wisdom is correct that the Serbs perpetrated more than their share of the worst crimes, it is highly inaccurate to view the war as if it were a one-sided genocidal affair. But from the beginning that is how administration hawks and others sold intervention to the American public. We went to Bosnia to stop Serbian aggression. Blinded by prejudice, we now have great difficulty acknowledging aggression against Serbs.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the American “equip and train” program for arming the Muslims. State Department officials say it is meant only for Muslim defense but cannot come up with examples of recent Serb threats. In stark contrast to the diplomats, most U.S. generals think the program creates an offensive force. The CIA, in rare corporate unanimity, believes it critically destabilizes Bosnian peace. Moreover, our NATO allies do not like it.

Why put a torch to a pressure cooker?


Those senior administration officials who in their heart of hearts want to see the Muslims conquer all of Bosnia should not kid themselves. The Serbs in western Bosnia, about 200,000 of them, would be forced to flee. They could not live in eastern Bosnia--there is nothing there but mountainous forests--so they would go to Serbia, which can ill afford them, bringing a wave of nationalist rage and frustration. Maybe not at once, but someday, they would try to return. Meanwhile Serbia could not return to normal. This broken foundation for Balkan politics would shame and dishonor America.

Nobody can reasonably expect a quick U.S. backtrack on Bosnia policy. Nevertheless, just as Albright was better able to reposition U.S. policy after press accounts began to fill in the record about Croatian crimes, so too could a wider discussion of Bosnia help reconnect policy to reality. At the same time, it is important to remember that the interventionists’ original moral instinct was not wrong. Peace in Bosnia is worth keeping.