Bosnia may not be finished after all. With the help of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's muscle, Biljana Plavsic, the elected president of Bosnia's Serb Republic, is gaining power at the expense of extremist voices. Radovan Karadzic, a rabid nationalist and key architect of the war that carved up Bosnia, grows increasingly isolated and weak. Plavsic's outmaneuvering of Karadzic provides the first ray of hope since the end of the war that a moderate Serb center may emerge and a multiethnic Bosnia may survive even after the peacekeepers have gone home.
The task of consolidating a stable Bosnia is, however, just beginning. Plavsic is no angel. She has moderated her nationalist rhetoric to advance her political fortunes, not because she has discovered tolerance. Estrangement among Bosnia's Muslims, Croats and Serbs still runs deep, as the recent local elections revealed. It will take time for communal ties to repair and for trust to displace hatred--time Bosnia may not have.
Even if political currents in Bosnia continue in the right direction, it is by no means clear that politics in the United States will do so. Indeed, Congress keeps insisting that American troops leave Bosnia by the middle of next year. Hardly the message of resolve needed to buy time for reconciliation to proceed and to convince rabid nationalists to give up the fight. If President Bill Clinton is to take advantage of Plavsic's ascendance and help guide Bosnia toward a stable peace, he will have to navigate the shoals of America's domestic politics, not just those of the Balkans. Before the current window of opportunity closes, Clinton needs to make clear to Bosnians and Americans alike that the United States is in it for the long haul.
U.S. politics have in two ways hampered effective implementation of the Dayton accords. First, fear of U.S. casualties played a prominent role in restricting the mission of NATO troops. Arresting war criminals, protecting refugees returning to their homes and helping to rebuild intercommunal ties were too ambitious. NATO succeeded in keeping the peace, but only by maintaining separation among the parties that ultimately must learn to live alongside each other if Bosnia is to remain intact. Second, Congress' insistence on a fixed date for the departure of U.S. troops has undermined NATO's leverage. Why should the parties in Bosnia make earnest efforts toward a lasting peace if the carnage is likely to begin should U.S. troops leave next summer?
The U.S. interests at stake require that Clinton challenge Congress head-on. Contrary to Congress' expectations, the United States would not be able to watch from the sidelines if U.S. troops quit Bosnia and the war begins again. The risk of a widening conflict and the return of ethnic cleansing will, as they did before, necessitate U.S. intervention. Peace in the heart of Europe is of direct interest to Americans; that's why U.S. troops are in Bosnia to begin with. It makes far more sense to finish the job of building a stable peace now than to start again after another round of bloodshed.
So, too, would a retreat from Bosnia make a mockery of America's plans for enlarging NATO. If all goes according to plan, the U.S. Senate will ratify treaty-based defense guarantees to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the same time it oversees the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bosnia. The Senate simply cannot have it both ways. Clinton needs to make clear to Congress that peace in Europe's center is either worth American lives or it is not.
Also at stake in Bosnia is the future of European integration, an experiment whose success is in America's interest. The more vital and coherent the European Union, the more the United States can count on the transatlantic link.
But the EU is struggling as it seeks to introduce a single currency and absorb new members from Central Europe. It cannot afford the unraveling of peace in Bosnia. When it tried on its own to resolve the Balkan conflict in the war's early years, the EU was paralyzed. It would stumble again, perhaps irreparably, were Bosnia to descend into war once more. For the sake of European integration, as well as for Bosnia, U.S. troops should stand by their European counterparts in the Balkans.
Well aware of the pressing interests at stake in Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has already challenged Congress on the scope of NATO's mission. Under their new mandate, NATO troops have arrested indicted war criminals, worked to neutralize the security forces that have been the backbone of Karadzic's power and seized transmitters used to broadcast nationalist propaganda and whip up ethnic hatred. NATO must keep up its activism if momentum is to continue turning against extremist voices.
In the meantime, Clinton needs to lay a more solid groundwork for the increasing risks run by U.S. troops. He must prepare the electorate for the prospect of U.S. casualties, ensuring that Bosnia does not become a repeat of Somalia, where the loss of U.S. lives led to a speedy and shameful retreat. Clinton's appeal to the public must come now--before the fact. Otherwise, should harm unfortunately befall U.S. troops, he may be held hostage by an angry and ill-informed Congress and electorate. Clinton needs to disabuse Americans of the notion that they can get away with internationalism on the cheap.
The president's national-security advisor, Samuel R. Berger, got the ball rolling Tuesday with a polished speech on the goals of U.S. policy in Bosnia. "The United States," Berger insisted, "has a deep and abiding interest in peace and stability in Bosnia." He went on to warn that the international community must "not lose patience or determination." But it is now Clinton's turn. Like it or not, the president needs to address Americans at prime time, explaining the interests at stake in Bosnia and why continued U.S. engagement is essential.
Clinton also must reject outright the notion that U.S. troops will be out of Bosnia by summer. In Tuesday's address, Berger waffled. He reiterated that the current NATO mission will end in June, 1998. But he also hinted an international force may be needed beyond that date, and America's role in a follow-on mission "remains to be decided."
That's simply not good enough. Such ambiguity may keep Congress happy and gain Clinton a little breathing space. But it sends the wrong message to extremists in Bosnia and to the American people. Predatory nationalists need lay low only until next summer, then they can again begin to carve up Bosnia. So, too, will a little patience bring relief to America; the country's sacrifice in the Balkans will soon be over.
But if peace in the Balkans is worth putting American lives at risk, then why should an arbitrary date, rather than the fulfillment of specified objectives, mark the end-point of U.S. responsibility? Why the national obsession with an exit strategy? America's departure should be contingent upon evidence that a stable peace is taking root, not on Congress' impatience or the administration's desire to get Bosnia off the radar screen.
Clinton should commit now to sustaining for as long as needed a sizable U.S. ground presence in Bosnia--along the lines of the current 8,000-man contingent. A visible U.S. presence is essential to deterring violence; it was not until the United States brought its military power to bear that the warring parties put down their arms. And only by keeping U.S. troops on the ground will Washington be able to provide the leadership needed to oversee an effective military operation. The United States cannot run the show if it is unwilling to run the risks.
As Clinton readies Congress and the American people for a more assertive and longer stay in the Balkans, he needs to press the international community to up the ante as well. NATO should proceed with the arrest of indicted war criminals. If retaliation occurs, NATO must respond with overwhelming force. Meanwhile, security forces loyal to Karadzic should continue to be disarmed, limiting their ability to harm peacekeepers. And NATO needs to redouble its efforts to shut down broadcasts of nationalist propaganda and ensure that independent radio and television stations have the funds and hardware needed to operate.
The international community should also use the promise of financial assistance to lure Bosnian Serbs away from the rejectionist path. Only 3% of last year's $1.36 billion in official reconstruction aid went to the Bosnian Serb Republic. Making clear that needed financial assistance will accompany earnest Bosnian Serb efforts to implement the Dayton accords will help strengthen the voices of moderation and reconciliation.
Finally, Clinton needs to step up pressure on Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of the rump Yugoslavia who, from Belgrade, oversaw Serb aggression in Bosnia. Since the easing of sanctions on Yugoslavia, Milosevic's interest in the Dayton accords and his willingness to cooperate with U.S. diplomats have dwindled. But Milosevic remains a power broker in the region; a stable peace will not emerge without his blessing. Clinton needs to make clear that Milosevic had better rediscover his cooperative spirit if Yugoslavia's reprieve from international sanctions is to be more than temporary.
Bosnia has arrived at a turning point, but one that must be seen as an opportunity to redouble America's commitment and resolve, not as the end-game prior to an imminent U.S. departure. Otherwise, the current ray of hope will be only that. And Bosnia's enemies will simply bide their time until U.S. troops head home and the country's vivisection begins again.