America, Bosnia, Europe: A Compelling Interest

Reprinted by permission of The Weekly Standard, November 6, 1995

The first serious negotiations aimed at ending the Bosnian conflict begin this week in Ohio, but the debate over President Clinton's proposal to deploy 20,000 American troops to help enforce the as-yet-unachieved settlement has been raging for weeks. So far that debate has focused primarily on questions of implementation -- how large the force, how clear the rules of engagement, how long the duration of deployment -- and on the American goal in Bosnia. Should we seek a multiethnic state or a partitioned state? But for all their significance, these issues are only part of a broader and more vital set of questions Americans must answer in the coming weeks: Is the United States farsighted enough in this post-Cold War era to recognize threats to its vital interests before they have grown to crisis proportions? And, if so, are Americans willing to take the necessary risks today to avoid facing much greater risks five or ten years from now? For the United States as a world power, the problem of Bosnia is, and always has been, about more than Bosnia. It has been about America's will and capacity to use its power effectively to maintain a stable and secure Europe, which in turn is the essential foundation for maintaining a world order conducive to American interests and ideals.

With the specter of American ground troops in the Balkans looming, some critics of the proposed deployment have insisted that the Bosnian crisis poses no great threat to those interests and ideals. But the history of the last four years, and the history of this century, have demonstrated otherwise.

Political rhetoric notwithstanding, there has never been any real dispute between Republicans and Democrats that the United States has had an interest in suppressing the worst manifestations of the Balkan crisis. The aggression of Serb armies in pursuit of a "Greater Serbia" in 1991 and 1992 renewed the question, just recently answered in the case of Saddam Hussein, about whether the United States and NATO were prepared to stop and punish such aggression when it appeared on their doorstep. The sight of "ethnic cleansing" and the mass rape and murder of the defenseless challenged Americans' and Europeans' moral conscience and evoked parallels, however flawed, to an earlier time when the West acted too late to stop a genocidal rampage in the heart of Europe. Members of both parties in Congress called at one time or another for the relief of besieged Sarajevans, for a peace agreement that would preserve the Muslims and not reward Serbian aggression, for airstrikes, and for a lifting of the arms embargo against the Bosnian government. Each of these demands constituted an acknowledgment that the crisis in Bosnia was something the United States could not ignore.

What a nation refuses to ignore becomes an interest, like it or not, and in the case of Bosnia the inability of the Bush and Clinton administrations to remain aloof, though each might have preferred to, meant that eventually the United States would have to try to bring about a solution. The American interest in a Bosnian settlement, however, was not just the product of its "humanitarian" angst, nor of some Wilsonian dream to rid the world of aggression. From the first the issue of Bosnia was intimately bound up with the larger question of America's role in Europe and its relationship with its key European allies and NATO. Finally, that is what pushed Bosnia across the threshold from merely an interest to a "vital" interest.

Until a few months ago, American policymakers lived in a state of denial on this point. They insisted that while the United States might have legitimate humanitarian concerns about the fate of the Bosnian Muslims, the issue of Bosnia was not directly related to the issue of European stability and security and, therefore, was not an interest of sufficient importance to require direct American military involvement. The policy of the Bush administration, in fact, was precisely to try to build a diplomatic firewall around the Balkan blaze, to separate it from Europe's great-power diplomacy, to avoid any distractions from America's paramount interest in the cohesion and vitality of the NATO alliance, and to keep it from becoming an explosive issue between the United States and Russia. The deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, albeit with NATO components, was a product of this effort to define the Bosnian conflict as a humanitarian crisis outside NATO's purview. Europe was the "core" of U.S. interests, insisted the foreign policy " realists" both inside and outside the Bush administration. Bosnia, although part of Europe, was the "periphery."

This artificial designation was driven more by fear than by logic. To acknowledge that the Bosnian crisis was of sufficient importance to require military involvement by the European powers was to acknowledge that Europe's only effective military organization, NATO, would have to be employed. And that, in turn, meant that the United States would have to involve itself on at least an equal basis with its NATO allies or have its commitment to the alliance called into question. Placing Bosnia on the "periphery" was the only way to avoid the inevitable pressure for a U.S. ground presence in the Balkans, a prospect that both Bush and Clinton understandably found unattractive.

But the goal of keeping the Balkan conflict in Europe separate from the issue of "Europe" proved elusive, and illusory. It was an illusion to imagine that a conflict in the Balkans, which over the previous century had always drawn in European great powers either to impose peace or to make war, could this time be kept entirely separate from European great-power politics. After all, the crisis began when Germany, in obedience to historical ties with the Croats, recognized an independent Croatia before Europe had devised any plan for managing the break-up of Yugoslavia. And the fiction of Bosnia's irrelevance to Europe was exploded entirely when the forces of the European powers, under the mantle of the U.N., took up positions in the Balkans.

The grandest illusion of all was the Bush administration's failure to foresee that the conjunction of European interest and American outrage would eventually turn the supposedly "peripheral" Bosnian problem into one that directly affected the "core" issues of America's relationship with Europe and the solidity of the NATO alliance. From the moment European troops were deployed, the crisis in Bosnia became a test of America's commitment to its NATO allies. Some leading American policymakers may have wanted to wriggle out of that commitment without quite admitting it. Former Secretary of State James Baker tried to square the circle last summer, when he argued for an American foreign policy of "selective engagement." As a good Atlanticist, Baker declared that the United States had to continue to be a "European power" in the post-Cold War era. But in the next breath he declared that Bosnia was a "European problem," not an American one. He obviously did not notice the contradiction.

In June, however, the inescapable logic of the Bosnian situation became painfully obvious. The fall of Muslim enclaves Zepa and Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb seizure of European peacekeepers as hostages, and the apparently imminent collapse of the U.N.'s Rube Goldberg-like military mission presented a reluctant Bill Clinton with the unpalatable choices we have come to know so well. He could either give up on efforts to suppress and possibly settle the Bosnian conflict, which meant sending up to 25,000 U.S. troops on a dangerous mission to extract NATO's forces (under the U.N. umbrella) amidst an ongoing war. Or he could steel NATO's will and use its power to try to impose a negotiated settlement, knowing that the policing of such a settlement would also require that U.S. troops stand beside their allies. Clinton had the wisdom to see that, sometimes, the best way out is forward.

Some critics of the Clinton administration have lamented that he ever made such commitments to NATO, suggesting that he made those promises without ever expecting he would have to fulfill them. Whether Clinton knew what he was doing or not, however, the obligations the United States is now being pressed to carry out had been inherent in the Bosnian crisis all along. If the United States intended to remain a "European power," it had to accept Bosnia as an American problem.

Today, therefore, the future of NATO and America's role in Europe is riding to a considerable extent on the willingness of the American people and their Congress to support the deployment of U.S. troops to enforce a Bosnian peace agreement (should one be negotiated in the coming weeks). The Republican-led Congress may well approve Clinton's proposal, if only in deference to the commitments the president made and perhaps out of a desire to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of not approving the president's policy.

But in the course of debating the deployment of troops, there is likely to be much discussion about whether the United States has any real interests at stake in Bosnia. Already many Republicans have asked why America should not let the Europeans take the risks to solve "their" problem. And polls show that many Americans, though supportive of NATO in an abstract sense, may be opposed to lending support to the alliance in the form of ground troops. At congressional hearings on Bosnia two weeks ago, Sen. John Glenn warned the administration not to build its case on fidelity to NATO: "I don't think the average American person really feels that affinity for NATO now that the Cold War is over."

Glenn's comment, even if only partly true, points to a problem bigger than Bosnia. We may soon begin paying the price for our political leaders' failure to provide the public with a broader "vision" of America's role in the world. The "vision thing" has been much derided in the foreign policy journals, but without an overarching set of principles, every problem like Bosnia can appear to the average American as just one more island of trouble in a sea of troubles. Divorced from the larger context of European security and the well- being of NATO, it is almost impossible to justify risking a single American life in the Balkans. It would be as if those who opposed appeasing Hitler in 1938 had to base their arguments solely on whether the Sudeten Germans were or were not being mistreated by the Czechoslovakian government.

Clinton and Republican leaders have only themselves to blame if the American people prove hesitant to fulfill an American commitment to NATO. Two years of playing the "economy president" and talking about the importance of multilateralism have done little to demonstrate America's vital interest in the continued vitality of NATO. Unlike Reagan and Bush, whose close friendships with key European leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl were always on public display, Clinton has formed such a public relationship only with Boris Yeltsin.

Republicans, meanwhile, have sent a confused message on NATO these past two years. They made expansion of NATO a key plank of the Contract with America, on the one hand, but then have balked on fulfilling a commitment to NATO in the Balkans. Their repeated calls for a "return to normalcy" in foreign policy these past two years, moreover, have done little to remind Americans of the dangers of not playing an active role in the world to protect American interests.

Now, after four years of telling the American people that the Bosnian conflict was unrelated to American security interests, that it was, at most, a "humanitarian" crisis worthy of our concern but not our direct involvement, the crisis has come full circle. Clinton, Democrats in Congress, and those Republicans and conservatives still committed to American leadership in Europe must hurriedly build their case for involvement from the ground up. But the foundation on which that case must rest -- a popular understanding of the importance to U.S. interests of European stability and the continued success of NATO -- may have begun to erode.

There was a time, not many years ago, when American leaders were haunted by the "lesson of Munich." It was also the lesson of Manchuria, the lesson of Abyssinia, the lesson of the Spanish Civil War, the lesson, indeed, of the entire period between the first and second world wars. The failure to respond to isolated acts of aggression, by Japan and Italy, and to the encroachments of fascism in Europe, led eventually to the colossal failure to meet a far graver threat posed by Hitler's Germany. Then, too, Americans insisted on defending only immediately apparent "vital" interests and remained unconvinced until the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor that Hitler constituted a threat sufficient to justify the sacrifice of American lives. America's failure in the 20s and 30s was not only a failure of will, but a failure of foresight.

A majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress did not see, perhaps because they did not care to see, that the relative security of the years immediately following World War I was far from stable and could very quickly be destroyed through an accumulation of challenges posed and left unmet. Above all, they did not see how closely their fate was tied to the fate of Europe, economically, strategically, and ideologically.

More than six decades later, there are signs that a significant number of Americans are succumbing to the same failure of imagination. When they look to Bosnia, they see only Bosnia. Now it is time for our politicians to become leaders, to explain what is really at stake in the Balkans -- or to accept without question responsibility for what may occur if we do not act.