How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
General Charles G. Boyd (ret.) is Director of the International Legislators Project at the Congressional Institute. He served as the Deputy Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command, until July 1995.
General Charles G. Boyd complains that the "conventional wisdom" on the war in Bosnia is "stunted by...a tragic ignorance or disregard of history" ("Making Peace with the Guilty," September/October 1995). But his own article is far from an accurate analysis of the origins, history, or nature of the conflict. To establish his credentials, the general assures us he has visited the region on several occasions and has benefited from speaking to U.N. personnel, including soldiers serving with U.N. deployments in Croatia and Macedonia. This is akin to someone telling us that he understood the political conflict in Nicaragua because he had spoken to American soldiers in Haiti.
Boyd's claim that "the Serbs are not trying to conquer new territory, but merely to hold on to what was already theirs" is doubly false--first concerning the facts about land ownership and second as an account of what happened when those territories were seized by military means. The correct figures for the private ownership of farmland in Bosnia, drawn from the last set of land registers before the war, are as follows: 44.8 percent was owned by Muslims, 42.6 percent by Serbs, and 12.6 percent by Croats. Moreover, more than 50 percent of Bosnia's surface area--mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and much urban and industrial land--was not owned by individuals at all but belonged instead to the state authorities. The claim that roughly 60 percent of Bosnia was owned by Serbs has been repeated so often by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and his spokesmen, and has been so welcome to U.N. officials eager to even the balance of conflicting claims, that it has become part of the United Nations' own conventional wisdom. But that does not make it true.
When in April 1992 artillery began bombarding Muslim-majority cities such as Zvornik in eastern Bosnia, the local Serbs were not "trying . . . merely to hold on to what was already theirs." Nobody was trying to deprive them of their property; nor, indeed, were the local Serb farmers firing the heavy artillery. It was, rather, the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), acting on instructions from Belgrade and executing a large-scale and carefully planned military operation. On the role of the JNA in launching this war against the Bosnian state Boyd says astonishingly little.
Boyd's account of the early phases of the war is also incorrect. He asserts that the conflict began with local Serbs taking up arms "to secure their communities from real and imagined threats." Once this was "accomplished," they "moved to connect Serb areas with secure lines of communication through locations in which other ethnic groups were dominant"; during this stage, non-Serbs were expelled because they were viewed as "security threats." The truth is that large-scale military preparations were made by the JNA more than six months before the outbreak of the war. Places of strategic importance were included in these plans from the outset, whether or not they were in Serb-majority areas, and were in many cases either occupied or ringed by JNA forces before the war began. Some, such as the town of Bijeljina, which controls a crucial stretch of road, were taken over by paramilitary forces from Serbia several days before the general outbreak of hostilities.
Boyd's statement that non-Serbs were subjected to ethnic cleansing because they were "viewed as security threats" comes extraordinarily close to an endorsement of Serb propaganda claims. His contention indicates a lack of awareness of the numerous detailed reports compiled by organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch, and the Society for Threatened Peoples; no correlation between security concerns and the expulsion of non-Serbs emerges from these studies. Does Boyd not know that in many cases local Muslim leaders called on their people to surrender whatever firearms they possessed--hunting rifles and shotguns--naively believing Serb promises that they would not be harmed if they ceased to pose a potential security threat, and that as soon as the Muslims had given up their arms they were subjected to imprisonment, beatings, rape, and murder in concentration camps? A mass of evidence, much of it presented and carefully analyzed in Norman Cigar's 1995 Genocide in Bosnia, demonstrates that the creation of an ethnically pure Serb state has been a central element in the doctrine of the Serb political and ideological leadership in Belgrade and Pale.
This brings us to the fundamental error in Boyd's article. According to Boyd, both the rebel Serb leaders and those of the Bosnian Muslims have been concerned only with "avoiding minority status in Yugoslavia or any successor state." But as Boyd himself admits a few sentences later, the Bosnian Muslims were a minority in Bosnia. Thus their commitment to the preservation of Bosnia as a sovereign state cannot be described as an attempt to avoid minority status. The rebel Serbs have been trying to create an ethnically pure state; the Bosnian government has been trying to defend a multiethnic country and society. While Bosnian government forces have engaged in some local incidents of ethnic cleansing (mainly during the Muslim-Croat conflict of 1993-94, a byproduct of the Serb war against the Bosnian state), the Bosnian government has never pursued a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing. Rather, Serbs have continued to live unmolested in Bosnian government territory and to hold positions in the Bosnian administration, army, and media.
From that central asymmetry, other differences follow. The Serbs--in Belgrade, Banja Luka, and Pale--initiated the use of large-scale military force; the Bosnian government did not. The Serb leadership has no democratic mandate to wage war; the Bosnian government possesses just such a mandate, as well as a right under international law, to defend Bosnian territory. Boyd's claim that the Serb population of Bosnia boycotted the 1992 referendum on independence and "made it unmistakably clear that it would take up arms if the new state was created" is unfounded. The threat was made by a few radical politicians, who also arranged for roadblocks to prevent ballot boxes from reaching many Serb-inhabited areas. In the main cities, where Serbs were able to vote, they opted for independence. Boyd notes that less than half the original Serb population may still live in Serb-controlled territory in Bosnia but attributes this to "fear, combat, and forced expulsion." Given that most of this area has not been subjected to forced expulsions of Serbs and has not seen combat for a full three years after its initial seizure, many Serbs may have left because they did not want to live in a gangsterized para-state.
The Serb leadership has used the prolonged shelling of civilian areas as its primary military and political tactic; the Bosnian government has not. The Serb leadership has attempted to destroy an ethnic and religious group; the Bosnian government has not. The Serb leadership has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of serious human rights violations in Bosnia; the Bosnian government has been responsible for a very small minority of them.
Despite occasional disclaimers, Boyd repeatedly suggests that the two groups' behavior during the conflict has been morally equivalent, but this is simply false. He writes, astonishingly, that the "only" difference between Serb actions after the fall of Srebrenica and Croat conduct during the recapture of western Slavonia was "the degree of Western hand-wringing." In Srebrenica, the non-Serb population was removed at gunpoint, and several thousand male inhabitants are believed to have been shot and buried in mass graves. In western Slavonia, most of the Serb population fled, apparently on instructions from Serb leaders, before the arrival of Croat troops; those who remained suffered neither expulsion nor mass murder. According to the U.N. secretary-general's report on those events, "The holding of over 1,400 Serbs, mostly male, in detention centres was generally monitored satisfactorily, as was the release of all but 186 of them, who remain under investigation for alleged war crimes. The Croatian Government has sought to encourage Serbs to remain in the Sector and has issued personal documents, including citizenship papers and some passports, to those who have applied for them." Can Boyd really see no difference between that and what happened in Srebrenica? And if he cannot, does he really have the right to accuse others of being "underinformed" about the nature of this war?
Noel Malcolm, of St. Antony's College, Oxford University, is the author of Bosnia: A Short History.
Boyd prescribes a policy that treats the interests of all sides alike, but his attempt at relativism rests on flawed premises. The war was not caused by understandable Bosnian Serb desires for self-determination or by the international recognition of Bosnia. If Belgrade had not formulated a well-organized policy and supplied muscle and leadership, war would probably not have erupted. Serb objectives had been articulated by the mid-1980s in the "Serbian Memorandum" adopted by President Slobodan Milošević to shore up his power. At the core of the plan was the establishment of a greater Serbia. The envisioned territorial expansion meant that the Serbs would unavoidably become a minority unless non-Serbs were killed, expelled, or assimilated on a large scale. The Bosnian Muslims never articulated an equivalent strategy.
Even if Bosnia had remained part of Yugoslavia and the international community had not recognized it, ethnic cleansing would still have occurred. A systematic, top-down campaign by the Serb government, intellectuals, and the Orthodox Church had already targeted the Muslims as a permanent and insolvable "threat." Some Serbs had called early on for what were euphemistically termed "population exchanges." Significantly, Kosovo, Vojvodina, and the Sandzak region, although part of Serbia, have not been spared "quiet" ethnic cleansing, which may yet become violent if the victims resist.
We do a disservice to the Serbs by assuming they all support their leaders' objectives. Many Bosnian Serbs, labeled traitors by the authorities in Belgrade and Pale, have voted with their feet, fleeing Serb-controlled areas. Since 1991, 615,000 people have left Serbia itself, many of them young men unwilling to die for a greater Serbia. In contrast, the Bosnian government has never said there was no place for non-Muslims. Some 200,000 Serbs live in government-controlled areas of Bosnia, while the deputy commander in chief of the Bosnian Army is a Serb, as is 11 percent of the army.
Boyd appears surprised that venal and cruel individuals exist in all the communities involved in this conflict. But the World War II allies were not perfect either. The United States organized internment camps, France and Great Britain ruled colonial empires, and Joseph Stalin was our partner in arms. The Czechs, Poles, Russians, and other allies took revenge on many innocent Germans during and after the war. Yet most would find it difficult to argue that both sides were equally bad or that one ought to have been--or should now be--indifferent to the outcome of a war in which the main parties have such disparate objectives, ideologies, and methods.
Norman Cigar is Professor of Security Affairs at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting and author of Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of "Ethnic Cleansing."
DENYING MORAL EQUIVALENCE
The only difference between Serb behavior in Srebrenica and Croat actions in the Krajina, insists Boyd, lies in the amount of Western handwringing and CNN footage. In fact, what took place in the Krajina--with tacit American support--was ethnic cleansing, but it was not mass murder. What took place in Srebrenica was simply the killing of all males between 15 and 50 by the Bosnian Serbs. Despite pro forma disclaimers, Boyd advances the claim that the parties to the conflict are morally equivalent, taking it as an article of faith that there have been no good guys or bad guys in this war, only "warring factions" that commit atrocities.
Boyd's position, which echoes that of "moderate" Serbs to an uncanny extent, is that Bosnia is an illegitimate, unreal entity outside the Federal Yugoslav context and that the Bosnian Serbs had a right to secede from it. The Bosnian government, although recognized by the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, is just another "faction," no more legitimate than the one headed by Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić. But even a cursory reading of Bosnian history shows that the country has existed in one form or another for a thousand years and disproves Boyd's claim that it is an "invented" state.
Most appalling is Boyd's inability to include moral criteria in his argument. Regardless of the validity of the Bosnian Serbs' claims about the Yugoslav breakup, they had no right to commit mass murder to attain their objectives. Decent people throughout the world have condemned the Bosnian Serbs for this reason. None of the other belligerents has perpetrated mass murder, whatever ethnic cleansing any of them might have engaged in.
The difference may have been lost on Boyd, but it has been well understood by the prosecutors at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, who have indicted Karadžić and Mladić for their carefully crafted policy of mass murder. The prosecutors have not found similar evidence implicating Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović or Prime Minister Haris Silajdžić. And in that fact lies the fundamental moral distinction that must be drawn--precisely the moral distinction that Boyd's piece does its best to obfuscate.
David Rieff is a Fellow at the World Policy Institute.
PUTTING OUT THE BALKAN FIRE
William E. Odom
Although Boyd's fundamental point--that all parties to the Bosnian conflict are guilty of crimes and atrocities--is valid, his policy recommendations are a bit timid, and too optimistic about Russian influence and cooperation.
In Bosnia, NATO is defining its future. If it cannot manage the Bosnian crisis, it can hardly expand the alliance to the east. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke's diplomacy will achieve solid progress should it result in an interim settlement that allows NATO to put significant ground forces in place while a final settlement is negotiated. On the other hand, if a settlement takes territorial arrangements as final, NATO will surely find itself on one side of the conflict. The difference between these two outcomes is critical.
No lasting settlement can be reached in the near future: passions run too deep, and the issues are too complex and outside understanding of them too limited. To produce an enduring peace, a truce must be long enough for the present leadership to pass from the scene and for economic recovery to occur. Boyd approaches this conclusion but draws back from its policy implications. A joint U.S.-European force of between 50,000 and 75,000 may be required during this interim period, and while the Europeans should shoulder the heavier burden, the U.S. contribution must be large enough to bring American advantages in command and control to bear. Moreover, only the United States has the power to enforce effective and uniform occupation policies among the participating states. That may involve arresting war criminals on all sides.
Including Russian troops in this force makes sense if Russia agrees to participate on NATO's terms, but given Russian domestic politics, Moscow may reject the offer. Some Russian politicians prefer the turmoil in Bosnia that disrupts relations among the members of the Atlantic alliance to an effective peacemaking effort. In addition, Russian influence on the Serbs is exaggerated. Any NATO approach must be designed to succeed with or without the Russians.
If a U.S.-led NATO does not accept the challenge, the cost of keeping NATO troops in the former Yugoslavia for 10 or 20 years will look like a bargain in hindsight. Not only will such an operation help deter future strife in Central and Eastern Europe, but it will also provide NATO with the new vitality and sense of direction it needs to survive and expand. If NATO misses the present opportunity, a later intervention in a wider and more trying war will likely require more troops and entail greater casualties.
Lieutenant General William E. Odom (ret.) is Director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute.
Charles G. Boyd
I was pleased to read the four responses sparked by my article as well as the supportive commentary that has come directly to me. Thoughtful, concerned people everywhere care deeply about the tragedy in the Balkans, and it was precisely this audience I hoped to provoke with a perspective previously unarticulated.
Noel Malcolm seeks to add to this debate with his historical arguments, which begin around 1991-92. While it would be interesting to argue with him point-counterpoint to determine whether Muslims owned 44.8 percent of the land or 42.1 percent, or whether there is an essential difference between Serbs firing their artillery into Sarajevo and Muslims firing theirs into Trnovo, such a debate would distract us from the goal that we all share--an enduring peace in the Balkans.
History did not begin in 1991; the conflict is incomprehensible without an understanding of the ancient baggage these ethnic groups carry. If I have emphasized Serb concerns, it is not because I find them worthier than those of the Muslims or Croats (I describe Serb behavior as "reprehensible" in the essay). I do so because their perspective has largely been ignored by those who would fashion a peace accord. Centuries of perceived victimization and the resulting paranoia have produced a very real Serb demand for self-determination that any successful peace agreement must accommodate. This is my central thesis. If Malcolm, David Rieff, and Norman Cigar missed it, the fault lies in my lack of communication skills.
Fortunately, it appears that the Clinton administration did get the point, albeit belatedly, and as a result we now have reason to be at least cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace. The Geneva agreement of September 1995 makes two important concessions to the Bosnian Serbs. It recognizes both the Republika Srpska and the right of its people "to establish parallel special relationships with neighboring countries," a condition enjoyed for some time by the Bosnian Croats and inexplicably denied the Bosnian Serbs in earlier Contact Group proposals. Both factions need the feeling of security that derives from being anchored in some way within one's ethnic group. More than the NATO air strikes and the Croat-augmented Bosnian government land campaign, the West's recognition of this reality and the subsequent concessions by the United States led to the Serbs' agreement to the Geneva accord as well as the more recent cease-fire.
General William E. Odom suggests that a U.S.-led NATO force will be required to enforce a peace agreement in the region, and he is correct. Having persuaded NATO to accept a more active role, the United States could hardly maintain its credibility as leader of the alliance if it were to refuse to participate.
Two principal dangers await the introduction of American troops. First, if the United States sets a withdrawal target date for its troops inspired by the upcoming presidential election, the mission is virtually guaranteed to fail. Those who oppose peace have only to wait for the United States to withdraw to begin their mischief. Second, while I agree that only the United States has the power to enforce uniform occupation policies and arrest war criminals on all sides, I question whether the United States will apply those standards equally and identify all war criminals--Serb, Croat, and Muslim. Sadly, the United States' continued reluctance to act fairly inhibited progress on earlier peace efforts and has prevented air strikes in response to Muslim violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. If the United States and its allies treat Serb violations differently from those of Muslims and Croats, they will destroy what will be at best a fragile commitment to peace. More important, continued preferential treatment of the Bosnian federation will further alienate Russia and give it additional reason to retreat from cooperation and fraternity with the West.
The passions evident in the letters by Malcolm, Rieff, and Cigar underscore my reasons for including the quotation from Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon at the beginning of my essay. One may find it extremely difficult to accept the "horrid hypothesis that everybody was ill-treating everybody else." The claim that ethnic cleansing, rape, and murder were part of a Belgrade-planned policy and therefore different from the similar, decentralized behavior of the Muslim and Croat forces is more evident to distant academics than to firsthand observers. When you walk the ground in Bosnia and talk with countless Muslims, Croats, U.N. personnel, aid workers, and embassy officials; when you read all-source intelligence reports, not just the newspapers, day after day, year after year, it finally begins to sink in that while these ethnic groups may differ from each other in superficial ways, all have committed unspeakable atrocities against each other, and all have legitimate fears that have been played out in the past with breathtaking brutality. And even if the Serbs were more morally culpable than their Muslim and Croat counterparts, emphasizing this point would be as counterproductive as railing against the Palestine Liberation Organization's history of terrorism in the midst of delicate Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The peace process in Bosnia will not benefit from the vilification of one of the actors.
If foreigners aim to play a meaningful role in resolving this terrible conflict, they cannot allow themselves to become impassioned partisans for one faction or another. They must attend to the fears of each and help craft a solution that answers, rather than intensifies, the concerns of all. The United States has shown that it is beginning to recognize the wisdom of this principle, and thus peace may be possible. If the United States loses sight of it, all bets are off.