A peace that's about to explode

As more than 10,000 NATO troops prepare to leave Bosnia, the Clinton administration is simply hoping stability will last until Election Day.

Published December 6, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

Four years after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic gathered in Paris to sign an American-negotiated peace agreement to end the Bosnian war, it appears that the Bosnian peace process may depend not on the three Dayton signatories but on the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

Today, Milosevic is indicted for war crimes, Tudjman is close to death in a coma in Zagreb and Izetbegovic's political associates have been accused of skimming millions of dollars from Western reconstruction assistance. Of the leading U.S. presidential candidates, only one, Vice President Al Gore, has voiced commitment to sustaining the U.S. investment in maintaining peace in Bosnia. Despite the presence of thousands of NATO troops and billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance, domestic stability has failed to take hold.

The prospect that Bosnia may not have a NATO peacekeeping force much longer and millions of dollars in reconstruction assistance may soon disappear has sent a shiver of panic through Bosnia, where a four-year-long war killed more than 200,000 people in the worst atrocities in Europe since the Holocaust. Since the peace agreement was signed in December 1995, the Bosnian peace process has floundered on key issues -- despite the infusion of $5 billion in reconstruction assistance, the presence of 30,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops and a legion of international experts working to breathe life into democratic governing institutions. More than 1 million Bosnians have still not been able to return to their homes in areas that are controlled by other ethnic groups, dozens of the worst war crimes suspects have not been arrested and Bosnia's Western-designed governing institutions are dysfunctional.

Adding to the concern by Balkan watchers about the prospects for lasting peace in Bosnia is the fact that Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley have laid out foreign-policy platforms that criticize U.S. military interventions in the Balkans. Both candidates say the missions are exhausting military resources for conflicts that lie outside the nation's vital national-security interests.

"I don't think the United States can be a policeman to the world. We don't have the resources or the wisdom," Bradley told an audience at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In a recent foreign policy address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Governor Bush said his foreign policy would focus on trade, Russia and China, and would frown on unclear peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who initially voiced criticism of NATO air strikes in Kosovo, has since said the Clinton administration was wrong to have not considered using ground troops in Kosovo. McCain has repeatedly called for Europe to take the lead in the Bosnia peace efforts, and is scheduled to outline his major foreign-policy initiatives in an address Tuesday.

"Suddenly, we're saying, we're out of here," says James Lyons, the Sarajevo director of the International Crisis Group, a Western think tank and advocacy group that has recently issued a report on the Bosnia situation. Bosnian "'ownership' of the peace process has become the big buzzword. In the end, the international community wants to disengage."

This week, SFOR began withdrawals that will take the force down from 30,000 troops to a projected 19,000 by April. Several factors are driving the new sense of urgency to scale back troop deployments in Bosnia. Increasingly, the Pentagon is complaining that its force readiness is being jeopardized by extended heavy troop commitments in the Balkans. In addition to its troops in Bosnia, the United States has recently committed 6,000 troops to a 42,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping mission in nearby Kosovo.

In addition, Western officials have grown exasperated with Bosnian officials who have consistently obstructed key aspects of the peace process, such as minority refugee return. This week, the top international official in Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, fired 22 Bosnian Serbian, Croatian and Muslim mayors and local office holders for obstructing the peace, and banned them from political life forever.

"There is a certain urgency, because support for the peace process in Bosnia Herzegovina is decreasing," said Alexandra Stieglmayer, a spokesperson for Petritsch, about the firings. The NATO-led stabilization force for Bosnia, SFOR, "is now reducing the number of troops in the country by a third. And it's getting increasingly difficult to get donor support for Bosnia."

Donor fatigue for Bosnia "is perfectly understandable," added Stieglmayer. "It is four years after the Dayton peace agreement was signed, and the Western governments have new obligations -- toward Kosovo, toward the stability pact for southeastern Europe and for domestic purposes. So it is high time that the peace process in Bosnia makes a jump forward, and that the country is led by responsible officials."

While everyone agrees that the Bosnian peace has to be cemented quickly, there are still deep divisions in thinking on how to achieve that. One camp, reportedly led by Dayton negotiator and current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, argues that the way to get out of Bosnia is by ramping up Western efforts to arrest war criminals and reform Bosnia's pre-war communist political and economic structures in which corruption persists. Holbrooke also advocates harsh punishment for anyone who intimidates people from returning to their homes.

"Right now, there is a big split in the State Department," says one Western analyst, who asked not to be named. "Officially, Holbrooke is not running anything here. But Holbrooke wants to be Gore's secretary of state, and Dayton is his baby. So he is looking for a more robust interpretation of Dayton."

"The other State Department camp," the analyst continued, led by the State Department's ambassador at large for the Balkans, James Dobbins, "is talking up Bosnian ownership of the peace process. Essentially, hand it over and get out as fast as we can after the presidential elections."

Also at stake is the legacy President Clinton hopes to leave abroad. Despite thousands of hours of effort, Clinton has been unable to secure a final peace deal in the Middle East. The near-breakdown of the Northern Ireland peace process and the recent collapse of international trade talks at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last week further underscore the fact that major foreign-policy victories have been elusive for the administration.

"Basically, the Clinton administration is holding its breath," the analyst continued. "They have very few foreign-policy successes. Their thinking goes, If we can hold on until elections, Bosnia can go to hell in a handbag afterwards. They just don't want it to blow up on their watch. So keep it on life support, keep it going."

But a State Department diplomat involved with the Balkans downplayed friction between the two camps. "Holbrooke is the architect and the godparent of Dayton, and everyone fully expected that he would remain closely involved in Dayton implementation," the official said. "Some people say we've done all the easy stuff. What's left now is really confronting head-on the anti-Dayton, mono-ethnic nationalist forces in Bosnia. And I think there is a general understanding in the U.S. and in many of the European capitals that strong measures are necessary."

"I think everyone is aware that the Republicans are going to be less willing to maintain the same level of resources that we commit to Bosnia if they win," he added. "We're definitely in a period of declining commitments of resources, both military and non-military."

Although Kosovo is now in effect competing with Bosnia for Western funds and NATO peacekeepers, the West's inability to cement peace in Bosnia in four years' time does not bode well for Kosovo and the rest of former Yugoslavia. Despite Western efforts to create democratic institutions and promote political moderates, the continued chokehold that hard-line nationalist extremists have in much of former Yugoslavia is troublesome to Western officials.

"The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina want a future. They want a future in Europe," said Jacques Klein, an American general who serves as the United Nations' special representative to Bosnia, speaking on ABC's "Nightline" earlier this week. "But I must tell you we have a small group of very hard-line partitionist leaders who still are building micro city-states, who like patronage and power and authority.

"Enormous progress has been made," Klein added, warning about the consequences of leaving the job in Bosnia undone. "And the key thing is the violence has stopped. The killing has stopped and people are now looking to the future and not to the past."

Despite the presence of some 80,000 NATO troops, ethnic hostilities continue to drive out minorities in Kosovo and prevent refugee return in Bosnia. The United States and its NATO allies have learned how to intervene. But they have yet to learn how to impose lasting peace.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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