Those whose sole concern has been to keep the United States out of the Yugoslav conflict may view American policy over the past four years as successful. The rest of us, even those who had a hand in that policy, know failure when we see it. True, the war has not spread beyond Croatia and Bosnia, owing in part to an American containment strategy. Also true, the human agony would have been worse had the United States not supported an international relief effort that deserves more praise than it gets. Yet we cannot evade the larger truth: the United States promised to stay in Europe after the Cold War in order to help keep peace and sustain the democratic revolution; but a war of aggression has been waged and won by a most undemocratic regime. The United States proclaimed principles of peaceful change for a new era; but those principles have been wantonly disregarded. We said "never again"; but again the intolerable has happened in Europe.

Great as our sorrow is for the slaughter and for our mistakes, it is unfair to suggest that the United States bears the main responsibility. Our military superiority and international leadership role do not obligate us to sacrifice our sons and daughters to combat brutality wherever it occurs. Moreover, the lack of a purposeful effort by our European allies to prevent or stop a vicious conflict on their continent not only surpasses American shortcomings but has hamstrung U.S. policy. Still, we must see that American interests and values, its credibility and self-respect have been damaged in the former Yugoslavia, and we must thus recognize the face of failure.

The United States is not destined to keep failing in the Balkans. Rather, it can devise a strategy that responds to the fact of Serbia’s military success and, from here on, both protects American interests and repairs its principles. The Clinton administration has established some limits of what will be tolerated, and it has created the possibility of a continued, if tenuous, Bosnian state. But there is a danger of misinterpreting and thus misplaying this opportunity. A strategy aimed at achieving an early, final settlement through a combination of sticks (limited air strikes) and carrots (relaxation of sanctions) would be a mistake, whether or not it succeeded, leading either to a futile escalation or to the codification of Serbian conquests in an unstable peace agreement enforced by U.S. troops. Yet wide and relentless NATO bombing at a level that could turn the tide of war or extract sweeping concessions from the Serbs would require a radical, and unrealistic, shift in Western and U.N. attitudes. The best alternative is to conduct a cold war against Serbia, one of indefinite duration but certain outcome, while in the meantime using NATO’s military power more effectively to ensure that relief reaches Bosnia’s innocent victims.


Contrary to a widely held view, the Bush administration was well aware of the dangers in Yugoslavia prior to the crisis. It simply knew of no way to prevent a violent disintegration. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, among others, understood Yugoslavia and its volcanic nature. There was no "intelligence failure," no inattention due to preoccupation with the collapse of communism or Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Rather, despite considerable deliberation and diplomatic action, no good option emerged to arrest the accelerating, awful logic of breakup and war. Serbs were usurping power in Belgrade; Slovenes were determined to be free from the Serbs; Croats were destined to follow the Slovenes; Serbs, in turn, were dead set against living as a minority in an independent Croatia; and the Bosnian powder keg was set to explode once the fuse was lit in Croatia.

By 1990 Washington was pessimistic but not paralyzed. It supported the teetering Yugoslav federal government of Ante Markovic, who was committed to democracy and a market economy. The Bush administration also pressed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to stop his oppression of Albanians in Kosovo and his illegal seizure of Yugoslav federal assets and authority, which were fueling Slovenian and Croatian secessionism. At the same time, the Slovenes and Croats were urged to consider arrangements short of dissolution. None of these American efforts was fruitful.

While the identity of the archvillain, Milosevic, Inc., was never in doubt, the Bush administration had scant sympathy for Slovene and Croat separatists. The former seemed willing to trigger a Yugoslav war so long as they could escape both Yugoslavia and the war. The Croatian regime, hardly democratic, adopted policies regarding minorities that stoked fears among Serbs living in Croatia of a revival of the Ustashe, the infamous Nazi-style secret police who butchered Serbs during World War II. American policymakers thus saw cynicism behind the declared "right" of Slovene and Croat nationalists to be free, democratic and part of the (Roman Catholic) West, even as these same U.S. policymakers knew that Milosevic’s power-grabbing was the main force propelling Yugoslavia toward a violent end.

U.S. policy prior to hostilities was not motivated by an attachment to a unified Yugoslavia but by a judgment, which proved all too correct, that a peaceful breakup was infeasible. American strategic interest in the integrity of Yugoslavia, per se, ended with the collapse of the Soviet threat to Europe. By late 1990 the overriding U.S. concern about Yugoslavia was to avert a Balkan war. Washington believed that a disintegration of Yugoslavia was bound to be violent because Serbs would sooner fight than accept minority status in an independent Croatia; that the fighting would engulf much of Yugoslavia, because the urge of each republic to secede would grow as others seceded; and that the human toll would be terrible, because Yugoslavia was seething with both weapons and latent hate-fear. (The grisly particulars, detention camps, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, shelling of civilian populations, were not predicted, though perhaps they could have been.) Those who criticize the Bush administration for contributing to the outbreak of the conflict by favoring unity have yet to explain how favoring disunity would have prevented the conflict.

As the crisis deepened, the United States advanced several sound principles: Yugoslavia should become democratic throughout; borders, external and internal alike, should be altered only by mutual consent, not unilaterally or by force; Yugoslavia should not be held together by force; members of minority groups throughout Yugoslavia should have the same rights as all other individuals. That every one of these principles was thoroughly trashed within a year underscores the scale of the U.S. failure but does not invalidate the norms on which they are based. (It is worth noting that essentially these same principles were observed, more or less, in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, where not a shot was fired.)

Knowing that disintegration meant a savage war, the United States favored transforming Yugoslavia into a confederation of quasi-sovereign states. Such an arrangement was also urged by the leaders of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who saw great peril in complete dissolution. Washington hoped that a loose structure would satisfy the Slovenes (and thus the Croats) while also convincing the Serbs that it was the only way to hold Yugoslavia together. Indeed, moderate Slovenes and Croats favored such an outcome and welcomed this American stance, knowing as they did that secession would lead to bloodshed. U.S. strategy, which culminated in Secretary of State James Baker’s mid-1991 visit to Yugoslavia, sought to persuade the Slovenes to postpone unilateral separation, while demanding (toothlessly) that Milosevic adhere to the constitution and warning the leadership of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA) not to use force to save Yugoslavia.

But the Slovenes proved indifferent to the fatal consequences for others of their actions. They seceded and took the Croats with them. In response, the JNA declared itself obligated to act in defense of the union and its own military assets. Serbs living in Croatia took up arms without delay. The Baker mission failed, but the secretary gave no "green light" to the Serbs to use force to preserve Yugoslav unity. Had the U.S. championed Slovenian and Croatian secession instead of urging restraint, the results would hardly have been better.


American reliance on its European partners to take the lead in Yugoslavia proved to be a grave mistake that compounded the West’s failure. Before the fighting began, the United States urged the European Community to accept leadership out of a belief that the allies had more leverage than the United States to head off a catastrophe. American attempts in 1990 to get the Europeans to face the dangers were brushed aside: an American proposal to consult in NATO was declined, with the French accusing the United States of "overdramatizing" the problem. Not until 1991 was the EC seized with the risks of Serbian policies and Slovenian secession. The $4 billion aid carrot the EC then produced could have been the last hope for avoiding war, had it not been dangled in front of the Yugoslavs at least a year too late.

At the highest levels and at every turn, the United States encouraged the allies to engage and offered its support. The Europeans favored EC leadership because Yugoslavia was viewed as an opportune foreign policy challenge at the very moment German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President Francois Mitterrand and others wished to display the EC’s ability to act effectively and cohesively. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, speaking for the EC’s troika of emissaries, proclaimed it "the hour of Europe," a quote whose painful echo is a reminder of how badly the Europeans misjudged the dogs of this Balkan war. The United States deferred to the Europeans’ wish that transatlantic coordination take place in EC-U.S. channels instead of in NATO. The alliance was thus kept out of the crisis until it became clear that the Bosnian conflict exceeded the capacities of all other international institutions.

Broadly speaking, U.S. handling of the Yugoslav crisis, at least from 1990 through 1992, contradicted and undermined its declared policy regarding the centrality and purpose of NATO in post-Cold War Europe. During that period, the Bush administration insisted that America’s role in European security would be maintained despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat and that NATO was the keystone of European security and the proper venue for crisis management. The administration informed Congress that a residual American presence in Europe on the order of 150,000 troops was needed to preserve stability and peace. The Rome summit at the end of 1991 endorsed NATO’s new role and revised alliance military strategy to emphasize force projection over territorial defense.1

Yet the Bush administration did not press for the use of NATO to set and manage Western strategy, much less to intervene, owing to a combination of the EC’s desire to lead and its own concern that NATO involvement would shift responsibility to the United States. Washington wanted the EC to succeed, but the clearer it became that the EC could not, the less eager the United States was to see the alliance, and thus itself, saddled with a no-win problem. Predictably, the attempt to hold the Yugoslavia crisis at arm’s length did not spare the United States the effects of, or responsibility for, the failure that followed.

As fighting intensified in Croatia in late 1991, the United States was hesitant to recognize the two breakaway republics. This hesitation stemmed from a conviction, also held by U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance, that premature recognition would scuttle Vance’s effort to obtain a ceasefire and deploy a peacekeeping force in Croatia. There was also a reluctance to recognize Croatia and Slovenia before recognizing Bosnia-Herzegovina. Both U.S. policy and the EC’s Arbitration Commission held that recognition of Bosnia should await the outcome of a referendum there. When a two-thirds majority of Bosnians, made up of Muslims and Croats, with Bosnia’s Serbs boycotting, voted for independence, the United States pressured the EC to recognize Bosnia in exchange for U.S. recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Recognition of Bosnia did not precipitate the use of force by the Bosnian Serbs any more than it deterred it. Very simply, Bosnian Muslims would not stay in a rump Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia, and Bosnian Serbs would not stay in a Bosnia dominated by Muslims. In any case, there was no legal basis for the United States to recognize Croatia but not Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The West was divided and immobilized in the crucial period between the EC’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991 and the European-American agreement in March 1992 that Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia should all be recognized. Bowing to right-wing and Croat expatriate pressure, German leaders muscled their EC colleagues into recognizing Slovenia and Croatia against the better judgment of the United States, the United Nations and indeed most EC foreign ministries. In doing so, Bonn hastened Bosnian secession and a war from which Germany, due to its history and constitutional restraints, could remain aloof while its partners faced risk and sacrifice. The Germans favored standing up to the Serbs, knowing that the responsibility would fall to others.

Consumed by their dispute over recognition, the Western powers failed utterly to prepare for the conflict in Bosnia they had every reason to expect. They failed even to call for the prompt departure of the JNA from the newly recognized country. Worse, the opportunity was lost to dispatch to Bosnia a peacekeeping force to discourage violence before it began. Because the U.N. force in Croatia was already shaping up as a major burden, there was no enthusiasm in the West or the United Nations for a significant new commitment. The EC was and would remain inert. Even on the eve of disaster, European governments did not seem to grasp the huge danger in Bosnia. At the same time, the Bush administration was hardening its resolve to keep U.S. troops out of Yugoslavia altogether. So the West watched Bosnia slide into unspeakable violence.


The London conference of August 1992 was a lost opportunity, a turning point and a sorry chapter in Western mishandling of the conflict. The conference, attended by an accommodating Californian, Milan Panic, as premier of the new "Yugoslavia," produced a package of useful concrete agreements among the parties. If honored, these measures would have curtailed the fighting, ended atrocities, guaranteed safe and effective humanitarian relief and set the stage for political negotiations.

In the days and weeks that followed, however, the Serbs willfully ignored every accord reached and commitment made. This affront drew no response from the West or the U.N. Security Council. The United States was disinclined to use air power to enforce the various London agreements, in part because of the perceived risk of being drawn in and in part because of the particular difficulty of air-policing restrictions on artillery. The British reinforced American hesitation by insisting that they would participate in the U.N. Protective Force (UNPROFOR) only if the United States did not introduce air power, lest it anger the Serbs.

The Europeans were also adamant about the need to maintain the arms embargo on the Muslims. Until its final days, the Bush administration shared this reluctance to arm the Muslims, despite the Serbs’ failure to abide by the London accords. Its analysis showed that lifting the embargo would increase Muslim casualties and the suffering of innocents, impair humanitarian relief and bring no change in the military fortunes of the parties. This fear of fueling the conflict to no avail outweighed the view that only the government in Sarajevo had the right to decide whether to accept the risks inherent in defending Bosnia and its people. When President Bush, feeling strong Arab pressure, reversed his position on the arms embargo before leaving office, London and Paris blocked the change, showing once again that the presence of Europeans (and absence of Americans) in UNPROFOR has given the allies a veto over U.S. action, just as it has given the Serbs a veto over Western action.

Western inaction after London told the Serbs in unmistakable terms that there would be no intervention. The Serbs were further emboldened as it became clear that the British and French considered their UNPROFOR contingents virtual hostages and therefore sought to avoid provocation. Concerned about the dangerous precedent of bowing to threats against blue helmets, the United States offered in late 1992 to use air power against the Serbs if they harmed U.N. personnel. The United Kingdom declined the offer; indeed, London’s repeated public display of concern for the safety of its UNPROFOR contingent encouraged the Serbs to threaten these and other U.N. forces as a way to derail Western attempts to interfere with their ethnic cleansing of Muslims. Other blue helmets in other nasty circumstances in the future might wish that the West had shown more grit in Bosnia.


President Bush’s decision not to allow American ground forces to play any role under any circumstances in Bosnia effectively precluded large-scale Western military intervention. The president’s advisers knew that Western military intervention in Bosnia really meant American military intervention with token allied forces, owing to the allies’ lack of serious intervention capabilities. The administration also feared that introducing any U.S. ground forces, even to escort humanitarian relief convoys, could lead to a creeping, eventually massive U.S. engagement since the United States and only the United States would be under pressure to escalate its involvement to ensure success. Involvement in Bosnia was viewed as more akin to Vietnam than to Desert Storm. Notwithstanding public outcry over televised Bosnian horrors, the Bush administration was convinced that the American public, seeing no vital interests at stake, would not support the level of commitment and casualties that might be required to succeed. Events since (e.g., Somalia) suggest that this reading was politically accurate.

Other uses of force, such as striking Serbian artillery in range of population centers, were rejected as militarily ineffective, as well as the first foot on the proverbial slippery slope. The Bush administration, no rookie when it came to using force, was not prepared to threaten force unless it was willing and able to execute not only the specific threat but whatever steps beyond might be needed to prevail. Panama and Kuwait were held up as evidence of the merits of acting only with "decisive force"; even administration hawks knew that Bosnia would be more difficult to manage militarily and politically. Nor was the president inclined to gamble that the Serbs would lose their nerve when confronted with American might. While likely Serb reactions to U.S. strikes were pure guesswork, the Bush administration believed the consequences of guessing wrong were prohibitive, in the sense that once committed the United States would then have to use all necessary force to avoid failure, despite the absence of vital stakes and firm public support.


The "lift and strike" initiative of February 1993 accentuated transatlantic discord, highlighted irremediable defects in the Vance-Owen plan, demonstrated the U.S. inability to lead, raised Muslim hopes that Western intervention would occur after all, and committed the United States to join in the enforcement of a dubious peace agreement. Perversely, it signaled to the Serbs that a large NATO force would be inserted in Bosnia not if the fighting continued, but only if it stopped. Not surprisingly, the new administration soon retreated to the same public posture that its predecessor employed when stymied, wrongly portraying the Bosnian conflict as a hopelessly complicated civil war, with all parties at fault and no American interests at stake.

There rested American policy, uneasily, until a Serbian mortar shell hit Sarajevo’s crowded marketplace, an obscene act, but one no worse than other atrocities routinely committed in Bosnia. Western television footage was gruesome enough to prompt Washington to insist on a NATO ultimatum threatening air strikes if the Serbs failed to pull their heavy weapons out of range of Sarajevo. When the threat worked, American advocates of air strikes proclaimed that they had been right all along to challenge the view that hitting the Serbs would simply get their backs up and endanger U.N. peacekeepers on the ground. But within a few weeks, defiant Serbs were shelling the "safe" city of Gorazde, firing on NATO aircraft and detaining U.N. peacekeepers, thus casting doubt on Pavlovian explanations of Serbian behavior. In the end, the Serbs edged away from Gorazde. But overall, it appears that spotty use of NATO military power will have spotty results. Yes, force impresses the Serbs more than other forms of coercion; but doses of force too small to alter military outcomes may not impress them enough to alter their behavior strategically.

The United States and its allies are right, at last, to use force when U.N. Security Council decisions or commitments made by the Serbs themselves are flouted, when U.N. personnel are threatened, or when humanitarian operations are hindered. However, since Western governments, reflecting public sentiment, have no intention of intervening decisively in Bosnia, there is little chance that air strikes, here and there, against Bosnian Serb tanks and artillery pieces will change the course of the war or bring about a principled and enduring peace. Thus, Serbian military gains to date will not be contested, and any formal settlement available at this time is therefore bound to reward aggression.


It is worth asking how U.S. policy over the past four years could have been such a dismal failure. Consistent U.S. leadership might have made a difference. Why was it not forthcoming from the seasoned, interventionist, Atlanticist Bush administration, from the folks who built the coalition and sent the force that crushed Iraq? This was not a case of a breakdown of Washington’s ability to read and act on the warning signs. Rather, George Bush and his lieutenants studied the facts and concluded that leadership in this crisis would have had major drawbacks for the United States.

Following the Gulf War, a leading role in Yugoslavia would have implied that the United States could and would act as international policeman, even in an area of more immediate importance to America’s rich European partners. Moreover, this was a problem with no good, feasible solutions. Only massive Western intervention would have stopped and reversed Serbian aggression, not some smart bomb down the right Serbian chimney. The United States faced by far the largest risks because it had (and has) the only real intervention capability. And the larger the task, the greater the American burden and casualties, and the greater the need for resolute public support. Yet Desert Storm taught the American people, wrongly, that vital interests could be defended with a handful of casualties in a video-game war. Popular backing for the use of force in Yugoslavia, ambivalent at the outset, would quickly evaporate. Lacking solutions, the United States had no reason to wrest leadership from the eager Europeans.

Neither the United States nor any other power saw its vital interests imperiled by the conflict. The West had a political and moral interest in humanitarian relief and a strategic interest in containment, and in fact the United States and EC have been successful in protecting those two interests. (The terse Christmas Day warning from Bush to Milosevic in 1992 that Serbian violence against the Albanians of Kosovo would expose Serbia to attack may well have prevented conflict there.) But Western leaders did not see, or, if they saw, did not translate into public support and purposeful policies, that the crisis, in Bosnia especially, was setting the worst possible precedents for the new era. They did not appreciate the importance of defeating this case of fiendish nationalism before it metastasized elsewhere in the former communist world.

At the root of American failure was West European failure. Had the Europeans confronted the problem when the United States alerted them, had they acted more cohesively, had they been more willing to sacrifice, the United States could have joined them in a better, if not entirely successful, strategy. Under both administrations, the United States has been prepared to do more, including use force, but not instead of or over the objections of its allies. Although many British, French, Dutch, Spanish and other European men and women have served courageously in the Yugoslav conflict, Europe itself has been a flop. That each of the most powerful members of the EC had its own agenda not only helped ensure EC failure but reminds us why Europeans, left to themselves, tend to mismanage Europe’s security.

Finally, poor as Western policy has been, we should not forget that Yugoslavs destroyed their multiethnic state, caused the ensuing war and fought it in a most heinous way. The Slovenes acted unilaterally without regard for what they knew would be tragic consequences for others; the Croats gave ethnic Serbs every reason to fear for their safety; Milosevic drew to the surface and then retailed the venom of ethnic hatred that had been inactive in modern Yugoslavia. The abundance of Balkan villains and absence of innocents, except for the people, do not excuse Western failures yet help explain why it was and remains so difficult to find solutions.


Belgrade wants a political settlement that will secure Serbian conquests, end economic sanctions and open the way to creation of Greater Serbia. The West, especially Western Europe, wants a settlement to end the violence but realizes that Serbian territorial concessions will be necessary. The United States is not prepared to carry out the kind of heavy bombing campaign that could change the calculus fundamentally, and even if it were, the Europeans, Russians and U.N. relief authorities would block it. But the allies are prepared to negotiate away the economic sanctions on Serbia. Thus eagerness in the West to stop the fighting could present Milosevic with the opportunity to become victor, peacemaker and father of Greater Serbia.

If the United States goes along, and agrees to pressure the Muslims to yield, there is a good chance of getting a bad peace, a settlement devoid of principle; an outcome that would strengthen a regional bully whose creed and conduct are the opposite of what the United States wants to foster in the former communist world; a formal acceptance of the results of aggression and ethnic cleansing; a deal obtained by forgoing further punishment of the aggressors; an unstable peace. Are we now condemned to add to our failures by codifying their consequences? Is this a solution we want American soldiers to enforce?

There is a less bad future, provided the United States is prepared to play a long game. A sustained economic and information war against Serbia should in time topple the Belgrade regime and permit a more principled and lasting settlement in Yugoslavia than anything within reach today. So far, sanctions have not brought down Milosevic nor changed Serbian policies. But in time, industrial demise and wretched living conditions should create pressure for change. Such a development would be no more astonishing than what has occurred in the past five years in most of the communist world, the Middle East and South Africa. Years, decades, if need be, of deprivation, isolation and misery should produce a democratic revolution and leaders eager to earn a place for the Serbs in the society of nations. Is that not a better time for a final settlement? Instead of rushing toward a bad agreement that will give this abominable regime the chance to recover and look respectable, we should commit to quarantine Serbia until the virus it carries has been eradicated.

Is this realistic? Even now, there are concerns that the sanctions regime will not hold. But a patient cold war against Serbia would not require that sanctions be airtight, provided they are durable. It is a mistake to expect sanctions swiftly to choke out the life of a regime as hardy and resourceful as that of Milosevic, backed by the legendary Serb patriotism he is able to sustain with his information machine. A better model might be the slow death of the economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, leading to the revolutions of 1989-91. In Serbia’s case, the process can be nudged along by a broader, if still imperfect, denial of the benefits of foreign trade.

Would the allies see it through? West European allies have proved quite stout in sticking with sanctions against South Africa, Libya and Iraq, as well as with restrictions on economic intercourse with the U.S.S.R. Why in the case of Serbia should they not be able to endure the limited effects on themselves? And if the Europeans believe sanctions cannot be sustained, why do they believe the Serbs will make important concessions to get them removed? In any case, even leaky sanctions should not be lifted in a trade for a flawed and unstable peace settlement. In sum, the allies have a weak case for ending Serbia’s economic isolation in return for a bad settlement, and a firm U.S. stance should prevail, especially since the Europeans cannot easily capitulate without American consent.

A more legitimate concern is with the harmful effect of the embargo on the frail new democracies of southeast Europe: Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania. The West cannot treat them as expendable. Instead, the EC and the United States should expand and sustain economic support so that these frontline states can survive and succeed as Serbia falters. Supporting struggling societies recently liberated from communism is a worthy cause in any case. It has done much for the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs. The cost has been affordable, and the results are promising. And, of course, the West would not be helping the Balkan democracies in the long run by ending Serbia’s isolation and letting Milosevic emerge as the victorious leader of a menacing local power.

Economic progress among Serbia’s neighbors could accentuate the political effects of Serbia’s own economic decline, provided its citizens are informed about the reasons for and consequences of their leper status. To date, Serbs may be miserable, but they believe they are right, and they blame the West, not Milosevic, for their plight. But therein lies a source of hope for the long-term strategy suggested here. The information revolution had as much to do with the collapse of Soviet communism as did the rot within. Today the majority of Serbs believe what they see and hear on the television station controlled by Milosevic. Tomorrow, certainly within a few years, Milosevic should be unable to prevent them from learning the truth, about him, about Bosnia, about the atrocities, about the reasons for their hardship, about their options.

This natural development could stand a boost. The Western democracies have done far less than their technology permits to challenge Milosevic’s information monopoly. Television is the key but not the only medium that needs to be developed and exploited. Fax networks riddled and wrecked the Soviet system, and the Serbian regime is as vulnerable. This strategy may not seem the stuff of high policy, but its potential is great, given time. The power of information technology is growing, and the power of truth should prevail in Serbia as it has elsewhere.

Of course, certainty of the success of long-term isolation is not essential to the case for maintaining it on the Serbs. Economic war in perpetuity against an unrepentant Serbia would send a strong signal that even when aggression is not stopped it will result in unforgiving punishment. After all, if international law supports punitive action against aggressors who fail, is it not more important to punish those who succeed? In any case, if sanctions do not produce sweeping change in Belgrade, a crippled Serbia is preferable to one that is given the chance to rebound from its offensive war.

In the course of an international cold war against Serbia, at least scattered fighting would persist in Bosnia. The West cannot prevent this. It is mainly a consequence of the presence of a half-dozen Muslim enclaves in regions of Bosnia otherwise controlled by the Serbs. The Serbs may or may not try to force or pressure the Muslims to leave the enclaves. Now that the threat of NATO air strikes is present, the Serbs will likely be content to tolerate most if not all of these pockets. Muslims may attempt limited counteroffensives now and then. But, on balance, there is little reason to think the fighting will increase or spread, or that the main battle lines will shift.2 Indeed, there may be a chance now of achieving a general or at least widespread ceasefire, decoupled from a definitive political solution. This war is terrible, but not so terrible or unstable as to justify a bad final settlement now, when the Serbs have the upper hand.

The international community, meanwhile, should concentrate its military efforts on improving humanitarian deliveries. Convoys will get through if they have adequate ground and air escorts who are not only authorized but ordered to use all necessary force to discharge their duties. Those who interfere with U.N. relief efforts or harm U.N. personnel should be exposed to air attack and charged with war crimes. To the French and British, who say they might pull out of Bosnia if there is not a quick deal with the Serbs, the United States should offer air cover and make the case publicly that the right stance toward Serbia is steadiness not retreat.

If the situation can be stabilized and the fighting curtailed by local ceasefires and restrictions on military operations, so much the better. Make this, not a political settlement, the focus of negotiations. But the tragic error that followed the London conference must not be repeated: agreements and commitments must be enforced. The West cannot resolve this conflict on acceptable terms with limited air power. But it should leave no doubt that it will be used without hesitation to uphold U.N. decisions and to protect those who wear blue helmets. This threat can help stabilize Bosnia while Serbia is punished.

There never was an easy solution to the Yugoslav problem, and our failures so far have made the conflict even harder to settle on terms we will not come to regret. So horrible is the war that pressures to stop it now, by air strikes or concessions, are intense. Yet they are not intense enough to generate public and international support for the kind of decisive intervention that could produce a just settlement.

Although the West is not prepared to defeat Milosevic militarily, it is not bound to cut a deal with him. Western impatience and guilt do not permit us to forgive the crime of forcing a million Muslims from their homes. We can reach a more acceptable outcome in time, with an acceptable Serbian leadership, by showing steadfastness we did in the larger Cold War. The United States can avoid sending American troops to police the result of the West’s weak policies. Unless we hand him victory now, Milosevic will lose a cold war, and real peace can then come to the Balkans.


1 Ironically, although NATO did not have in mind the possible use of its new "rapid reaction corps," the JNA was not so sure. The Yugoslav defense minister, General Veljko Kadijevic, told me after the Rome summit that he suspected the alliance of preparing an intervention force.

2 In the unlikely event that the U.N. Security Council lifts the arms embargo on the Muslims, violence would increase, relief operations would be curtailed, Western consciences would be cleared, but Serbian gains almost certainly would not be reversed.

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  • David Gompert is a Vice President at RAND and former Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia on the Bush administration’s National Security Council staff.
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