Bosnia continues to preoccupy U.S., fray NATO ties THE CRISIS IN BOSNIA

January 15, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As the distant Bosnian war swings between atrocity and cease-fire, a quieter conflict grinds on inside the U.S. government, sapping the strength of policy-makers, eroding the Atlantic alliance and blocking decisive American action.

Since Yugoslavia's ethnic patchwork pulled apart in 1991, a shifting cast of players ranging from low-level State Department desk officers to presidents has agonized over the consequences, spending more time and worry on Yugoslavia than on just about any other international problem.

But after nearly four years of frantic diplomacy and frustrating debate, policy-makers remain at odds over basic questions:

Is this a war of aggression or a civil war? Will heavy weaponry and airstrikes halt the conflict, or will it take the deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, a move that could lead to heavy American casualties? And what is the price of U.S. inaction?

"It's the most frustrating issue I've ever dealt with, and we were always running behind," said Stephen Hadley, former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the Bush administration.

In Washington, it has been an exhausting, damaging battle between those arguing in favor of what they believe to be morally right and those arguing about what is politically possible, a process that has highlighted the imperfections in the making of foreign policy.

By now, the original goal has been shown to be unreachable: a multiethnic state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The second wave of European genocide in a half-century has gone largely unpunished. Despite a fragile winter cease-fire, a weary Clinton administration worries about explosive new fighting in the spring and the danger of a wider war.

U.S. experts started predicting Yugoslavia's collapse as early as 1980, the year that Josip Broz Tito died -- the Communist dictator who had held Serbs, Croats and Muslims together for decades. By late 1990, U.S intelligence analysts were fore-casting that Yugoslavia's breakup was imminent.

In retrospect, officials say early action by the United States and its allies might have prevented the horror that followed, first in Slovenia and Croatia, and then, starting in 1992, in Bosnia.

Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush's national security adviser, says now:

"Had we gotten together with the Europeans and drawn up these nice conditions, gone to the Yugoslavs and said, 'Look, we don't think you ought to break up. It doesn't make sense. You ought to try to rationalize your differences. But if you insist on breaking up, OK, but here are the conditions we insist on, [it] might have worked.

"Should have been tried," Mr. Scowcroft said, "and it wasn't."

Before the war spilled into Bosnia in 1992, Pentagon officials floated the idea of sending a military peace keeping force to deter it.

But Mr. Bush wanted to stay out. He defied the power of televised carnage to put political pressure on him to act. Having led the anti-Iraq coalition and sent a half-million troops to the Persian Gulf, he was happy to leave this crisis to the European Community, which was eager to show that it could tackle a security problem on its own.

This kept the United States and the NATO military alliance on the sidelines from mid-1991 through mid-1992, a time when U.S. global prestige was highest.

This period of inaction coincided with the Bosnian Serbs' largest offensives to grab large chunks of Croatia and Bosnia.

Among top aides, no one pushed Mr. Bush strongly, not even Mr. rTC Scowcroft or then-Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, both Yugoslav experts.

"We could not solve it at a price we were prepared to pay, which at worst would have been another Vietnam," argues Mr. Scowcroft, who to this day views all sides in the conflict as equally bad.

The Persian Gulf war, he says, had finally purged the nation of the "Vietnam syndrome," the fear that any major U.S. military action lacking broad popular support might embroil the nation in another bloody, drawn-out and divisive conflict. "I didn't want to bring it back," Mr. Scowcroft says.

While the top ranks of the national security bureaucracy wanted to duck the issue, the lower-level experts called for military action, as more and more evidence was found of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

As Serbs pursued their brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims and Croats, some advisers pestered Secretary of State James A. Baker III to propose air attacks against Serb artillery around Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

But others demurred. Robert Zoellick, a top Baker aide, said: "I never felt certain what course of action was right."

And as the Bush re-election campaign heated up, the administration feared being accused of launching military action merely to boost the president's popularity.

'Humanitarian nightmare'

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