A strategic sign

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A strategic sign

The Geopolotical Significance of "Bosnia" in U.S. Foreign Policy.

Gearóid Ó Tuathail (Gerard Toal), Department of Geography, Virginia Tech

First published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 17, 515-533. *

Why did the United States government eventually intervene decisively in the Bosnian war in the summer of 1995, first with sustained NATO bombing, subsequently forging the Dayton Peace Accords, and finally deploying 20,000 troops to a region its military leaders had long claimed was not strategic? This paper seeks to provide an answer to this question by arguing that Bosnia became strategic because of its geopolitical location in a Europe supposedly secured by NATO and because of the negative sign value it accumulated over the course of its bloody war. The Bosnian war exposed the limits of the Bush administration’s New World Order, the inability of the European Union to impose peace, the weaknesses of the United Nations, the impotency of NATO and the leadership failures of the United States. It thus became strategically important as a threatening sign of disorder in Europe that the United States needed to confront in order to re-legitimate NATO and its plans for expansionism, and to re-generate its national exceptionalist identity as a global power. The paper considers the role of the media in helping generate Bosnia as a "strategic sign," arguing that the videocameralistics of the media play an important role in conditioning the practices of foreign policy.


In early 1989 Warren Zimmermann the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia had a meeting with the newly confirmed deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration Lawrence Eagleburger. A man with years of experience as a diplomat in Yugoslavia, Eagleburger knew the country well and as Zimmermann remembers it, "they soon agreed that the traditional American approach to Yugoslavia, born in the Cold War years, no longer made sense amid the revolutionary changes sweeping Europe" (Zimmermann 1996, 5).1 It was decided that in his introductory calls in Belgrade, Zimmermann would deliver a new message about the U.S.'s consideration of the geopolitical significance of Yugoslavia. "I would say that Yugoslavia and the Balkans remained important to U.S. interests, but that Yugoslavia no longer enjoyed its former significance as a balance between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact." With the Soviet sponsored regimes in Eastern Europe crumbling, Yugoslavia's was "no longer unique, since both Poland and Hungary now had more open political and economic systems" (Zimmermann 1996, 7).

Never a central strategic location in the Cold War struggle in Europe, Yugoslavia enjoyed a distinctive geopolitical identity in the West by virtue of its status as a non-aligned Communist state that had historically defied Stalin and remained outside the Soviet sponsored security order in Eastern Europe. With the threat posed by that order disintegrating, Yugoslavia's geopolitical significance was diminishing. In the emergent post-Cold War world, Western security analysts perceived the country as strategically peripheral. When it thus became apparent in 1991 that Yugoslavia as a federal state was in danger of collapse, the predominant attitude of the United States was shaped by assumptions about its strategic marginality. Secretary of State James Baker made a brief one day effort on 21 June 1991 to forestall the decent of the country into violence but when this eventually happened he concluded, along with other policy-makers, that ultimately "we don’t have a dog in this fight" (i.e. we have no interests at stake in this conflict; cited in Danner 1997, 58; see Baker 1995).

Four years later as the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica fell to the besieging Serb army President Clinton and his foreign policy advisors were belatedly concluding that the United States did indeed have considerable interests at stake in the course of the Yugoslavian war of secession. The half-hearted involvement of the Western powers, NATO and the United Nations in the conflict -- a carefully circumscribed policy driven by France and Great Britain and supported by the U.S. that was in part dictated by Yugoslavia's perceived strategic marginality -- was being viewed by most of the world’s foreign community, a community made up of foreign policy professionals, specialists, diplomats, defense analysts and the international media, as a failure. According to the sources of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the president concluded at a crucial White House meeting in July of 1995 that "this policy is doing enormous damage to the United States and to our standing in the world. We look weak" (Woodward 1996, 261).2 Referring to the persistent coverage of the war on international television networks like Cable Network News, Clinton is reported to have remarked that "we have a war by CNN. Our position in unsustainable, it's killing the U.S. position of strength in the world." U.S. ambassador and future secretary of state in the second Clinton administration, Madeline Albright, is quoted by Woodward as responding that "[w]e have to look at this issue beyond Bosnia" and "I'm glad the president sees this in terms of American power in the world." National Security advisor Anthony Lake concurred noting that "this is larger than Bosnia. Bosnia has become and is the symbol of U.S. foreign policy" (Woodward 1996, 262).

That the fall of a small town most Americans never heard of amidst a confusing civil war in the strategically marginal ‘Balkan region’ could be perceived by the U.S. president as "killing the U.S. position in the world" is a surprising turn of events few could have predicted five years earlier. As Danner (1996, 57-58) asks, "[c]ould Clinton seriously believe this of an immiserated country of three million whose security, American officials had insisted for four years, seemed to touch no American national interest?" Clinton's reported reaction nevertheless accords with the significance and priority U.S. foreign policy officials gave to the Bosnian war from mid 1995 onwards, tilting decisively first towards the Muslim-Croat federation, then making an all out push to secure the Dayton Peace Accords by the end of the year and subsequently deploying 20,000 U.S. troops to implement and secure the peace agreement. For Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who was the diplomatic force behind of the Dayton Peace Accords, Baker’s assertion that "we had no dog in this fight" lay in the dustbin of history (Holbrooke 1998, 318). Bosnia was one of "the three main pillars of American foreign policy in Europe," alongside U.S.-Russian relations and NATO enlargement into Central Europe. A new post-Cold War European security system could not be built "while part of it, the former Yugoslavia was in flames. Settling Bosnia was necessary, although not sufficient, for true stability and long-term economic growth in Europe" (Holbrooke 1998, 359, 365). Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, publicly declared that to "suggest, as some have, that America has no stake in the future of Bosnia is to propose that America abdicate its leadership role in Europe" (Albright 1997). U.S. military and economic involvement in Bosnia now costs the U.S. state millions of dollars each year. From being, to American strategists, a relatively unknown location in a geopolitically marginal country, Bosnia has become an emblematic sign of the American-sponsored post-Cold War security order in Europe, a defining symbol of U.S. leadership in Europe and credibility across the world. Bosnia has become an overdetermined geopolitical sign loaded with meanings and symbolic values that far transcended its immediate geographic context. Once a non-place geopolitically, Bosnia has become a global strategic drama.

How did this transformation of Bosnia’s geopolitical significance occur and what does this tell us about the nature of geopolitics at the end of the twentieth century? This paper has developed out of an earlier study of the contested scripting of "Bosnia" as a location in the U.S. geopolitical imagination up until mid 1994 (Ó Tuathail, 1996b). In that paper, I argued that two dominant scripts were in contestation over the writing of "Bosnia" as a place, scenario and crisis: a Vietnam script, with particular institutional strength in the Pentagon, that sought to write the place as a potential quagmire for U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. military in particular, and a Holocaust script, with particular support amongst certain administration officials and the media, that sought to write "Bosnia" as the scene of a contemporary mini-Holocaust that demanded a strong moral response by the United States and the international community. The dominant script was that sponsored by the Pentagon, a script that persistently reminded administration officials and the media that "Bosnia" was not a strategic place. The United States had no "vital strategic interests" in the region and consequently the United States military should not get actively involved in the conflict.

Yet the U.S. military did end up becoming deeply involved in the region through its leadership role in NATO, unleashing the most extensive aerial bombing campaign in Europe since 1945 and, after the Dayton Accords, deploying 60,000 troops to Bosnia, the largest troop movement in Western Europe since the end of World War II (Holbrooke 1998, 319). Why? What caused this change? This paper seeks to provide an answer by documenting how Bosnia over time became a sign of instability, ethnic hatred and Western failure in post-Cold War Europe. The very name "Bosnia" came to signify an intractable geopolitical problem and ongoing moral dilemma for the West and its institutions of security, principally NATO. Bosnia was, as Warren Christopher famously described it, a "problem from hell" but, most significantly, this "hell" was located in Europe. Despite its lack of conventional strategic value and significance -- conflict in the region posed no direct to NATO states nor did it contain any valuable economic resources like petroleum --, Bosnia acquired strategic significance by virtue of its status as a sign of Western failure and chaos on the European continent. Bosnia became a strategic sign. Its accumulated strategic value came from its negative sign value, a sign value projected and promoted by international mass media networks and the global circulation of images from the war. Geography mattered in explaining why the United States ended up deploying troops in Bosnia but it was a multifarious geography that (con)fused the territorial and televisual, the symbolic and the strategic. It was not only a war over territory in Europe but a "war by CNN," recorded by an extensive international press corps and projected to the world by global telecommunication systems. Bosnia was not only in Europe but also in European, American and other international living rooms. It was consequently a widely distributed geopolitical sign, a sign value of instability and ethnic warfare that the U.S. and NATO eventually needed to confront and control.

This paper presents a concise interpretative narrative and analysis of the major geopolitical processes and events that helped transform Bosnia into a "strategic sign." Geopolitical processes and events are inevitably con-textual and open-ended (Ó Tuathail 1996b, Ó Tuathail and Dalby 1998). This paper makes interpretative decisions in emplotting a narrative and constructing an analysis not in order to deny or ignore that irreducible textuality but to develop a practical critical geo-political analysis of U.S. foreign policy in Bosnia. Central to that analysis is the assumption that ‘Bosnia’ is a contested conceptual category, that it is always implicitly if not always explicitly enframed by inverted commas signifying its irreducible geo-political textuality. The paper argues that ‘Bosnia’ accumulated greater and greater geopolitical significance as its war progressed with the Clinton administration eventually acknowledging its "strategic sign value" in the summer of 1995. The paper subsequently addresses the role of the media in helping transform Bosnia into a "strategic sign" and briefly discusses the concept of "videocameralistics" as a way of theorizing the role of the media in conditioning contemporary geopolitical practices. Finally, the paper concludes by briefly reflecting on the politics of Bosnia’s "geopolitical inflation" from a relative non-location into a strategic sign, contrasting American intervention in Bosnia to another inflated strategic sign, "Vietnam."

The making of Bosnia as a strategic sign

Bosnia and the limits of the 'new world order'.
Yugoslavia descended into violence in the summer of 1991, a few months after the spectacular success of the American-led coalition in the Persian Gulf in evicting the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The effort to assemble an international coalition through the United Nations to evict Saddam Hussein's army had led President George Bush to proclaim a New World Order characterized by diplomatic co-operation between former enemies (the United States and what was then still the Soviet Union) to isolate aggressive states which threatened international stability by invading sovereign states and, in this case, endangered the world's oil supply. With Iraq defeated and its infrastructure in ruins, the pro-Western Kuwaiti monarchy restored, and average Americans taking great pride in the spectacular success of the military war machine they led, the prestige and international standing of the United States of America in world affairs seemed at a new high. Amidst a triumphalist atmosphere, President Bush evoked the spirit of Henry Luce and proclaimed the beginnings of a second American century. Given Bush’s rhetoric about the need to establish the rules for a peaceful New World Order and demonstrating to potential aggressors that they will not succeed, it was thus somewhat ironic that a new and bloody war broke out in ‘southeastern Europe’ at this time which would eventually seriously expose the limits and contradictions of the New World Order.

Bush’s vision of a New World Order was always a contingent and contradictory notion. First, as it gradually became evident that the Cold War as Americans imagined it was over, the dominant tendency in American foreign policy was one of adjustment and withdrawal. America had borne the burden of containing Communism in Europe and now that it had collapsed, it was time for the United States to come home and begin to address its own geo-economic failings and domestic problems. America's enormous investment in its Cold War defense establishment seemed justified but now a "peace dividend" was due (Cox 1995). Professional products of America's Cold War establishment like Henry Kissinger and George Bush interpreted many of these sentiments as overly "euphoric" and "isolationist." For them, the United States needed to re-consolidate its role as the preeminent global power, the world's ‘sole remaining superpower.’ The Gulf War proved to be a means of re-asserting this role and re-teaching American citizens about their country's unique destiny to lead, to do what Bush termed in his 1992 State of the Union address the "hard work of freedom" (Bush 1996). The overall result was a contradictory tension in American foreign policy discourses and practices between a general tendency to re-adjust to the Cold War by withdrawing commitments and concentrating on domestic priorities, on the one hand, and a newly expressed commitment to a grand international project in which America would assume the burden of the "hard work of freedom," on the other hand. At the same time as Bush was declaring a second American century, critics on both the left and the right were calling on America to "come home."

The second contradiction of Bush's New World Order is that it was built around a unique set of contingencies, namely the Gulf War of 1991-92. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was significant not because it was the invasion of one sovereign state by an aggressive other but because it was Iraq, a nationalistic and bureaucratic military dictatorship in the resource-rich Middle East, invading Kuwait, a tiny pro-western monarchical dictatorship that was no more than a transnational petroleum production station. America's mobilization of an international coalition against Iraq was facilitated by the fact that international strategic analysts perceived the crisis, whether rightly or wrongly, as a struggle over the control of oil reserves. In addition, numerous regional powers found it in their self-interest to join an international coalition to oppose Iraq and reduce its potential power in the region. Thus, the New World Order as a set of general principles was in actuality based on a set of particular and unique circumstances.

Third, the credibility of the New World Order was based on the spectacular military successes and excesses of the American-led coalition against Iraq. The remarkable nose-cone video footage of 'smart' bombs destroying targets in Iraq, the pictures of thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendering to the coalition forces, and the darker images of Iraqi soldiers being cut down and slaughtered by war machines they could not see gave the Gulf War a spectacular televisual quality and force. The Gulf War was a flashy and fast show of force projected to a global audience. Yet, the circumstances of this triumph of fast and forceful images were also contingent and unique. The Gulf War was a perfect war for military planners in certain ways. The preparation time was considerable, the military objective clear and easily explained to the public, and the desert conditions generally favorable to high-tech warfare. The conflict lent itself reasonably well to the Pentagon's dominant military operations paradigm, the Weinberger-Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, clear objectives and a specified exit strategy and end game. The security challenges of the post-Cold War world, however, rarely leant themselves to such a rigidly delimited doctrine of engagement and operation. Also security challenges like ‘failing states’ and ‘ethnic violence’ resisted the chronopolitical paradigm of the Gulf War, the speed-spectacle-success formula that appeared to solve security challenges in rapid and decisive ways as if they were movies or televisual dramas.

Unlike the Gulf War which was short and positively spectacular (from the point of view of the American-led coalition), the breakup of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia in particular was long, drawn-out, and negatively spectacular. Instead of a mini-series of high-tech military images of spectacular force, precision and decisiveness, Bosnia became a long running nightmare of low-tech brutality, of thuggish terror, indiscriminate shelling and seemingly pre-modern siege warfare. Although designated as a strategically insignificant region by Western defense intellectuals, the images from Bosnia gradually became a serious and significant threat to the idea of a New World Order precisely because of their constantancy and duration. The Gulf War and the New World Order were blockbuster productions that captivated and enraptured everyone when they first burst onto our screens. However, like many blockbursters, their staying power was limited and their afterglow soon faded. Bosnia, by contrast, was a slow release low-budget sleeper that refused to go away. The very durability of the "Yugoslavian catastrophe" and the "Bosnian nightmare" as scenes of new world disorder in the supposed epoch of the New World Order gradually lent them greater and greater significance as deconstructive horror shows. Bosnia began to expose the contradictions and contingency of the Bush administration's New World Order. In the light of Bosnia, the New World Order was a false promise and cruel dream, a feel-good remake of the late 1940s with classic themes, a short run time, fine speeches and spectacular images that quickly faded away. The United States and its allies were not committed to sovereign states suffering from aggression and they proved themselves unwilling to do "the hard work of freedom."

As the crisis deepened the nominal strategic marginality of Yugoslavia and its province of Bosnia began to change. In the world of instantaneous communication and mass media, it was becoming evident that no place could ever be strictly delimited as truly marginal any longer. The networks of the mass media were becoming newly powerful video-graphers of the dramas of world politics (Wark 1994). If regional conflicts and wars produced recordable spectacular footage and images these would eventually find their way onto the screens of a mass media predisposed towards visual spectacle and, if dramatic and persistent enough, thus onto the agenda of global security managers whose work increasingly required them to manage the images of world dis/order (Gowing 1994, Rotberg and Weiss 1996). However, while many previously marginal places shot to fame on the basis of spectacular images -- Somalia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Haiti, and today Algeria, for example -- only a few had the staying power of the Bosnian nightmare. It also had the ‘myth of a continent’ going for it (Lewis and Wigen 1997). Unlike many other brutal wars in the post-Cold War world, it was ostensibly in "Europe."3

The failure of the European Union and United Nations diplomacy
According to the last U.S. ambassador to the former Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann (1996, 147) the major powers of the European Union had shown "torpor" on the issue of Yugoslavia's breakup until the summer of 1991. With the outbreak of violence in Slovenia and the Krajina, however, the European Community (later to become the European Union) "launched itself like a rocket into the Yugoslav crisis." European Community leaders viewed the crisis as a way of demonstrating its ability to handle security challenges and crises in post-Cold War Europe. Gow (1997, 48) suggests that the European Community was "keen to exorcise the ghost of indecision and inaction during the Gulf Conflict the previous year." Certainly the crisis was widely perceived by the world’s foreign policy community as a test for European institutions moving further along the road towards harmonization, policy co-ordination, and unity. Part of the Maastricht Summit of December 1991 had as its goal movement towards a common foreign and security policy. It was, according to the widely circulated soundbite of Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, the "hour of Europe." This general European sentiment dovetailed with an evident American willingness to devolve the manifestly sticky problem of Yugoslavia's breakup to the diplomatic institutions of the European Community working in alliance with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, later re-named the OSCE) and the United Nations. A set of understandings and a division of labor emerged within the Western community of states which lead American foreign policy makers to emphasizing that the breakup of Yugoslavia was a primarily "European problem."

Yet this geopolitical moment of American withdrawal and European assertiveness was already endowing the dissolution of Yugoslavia with a symbolic value greater than its local or even regional extent. As a so-called test of whether the states of the European Community could come together and formulate a unified policy response towards the crisis, the dissolution of Yugoslavia within Western foreign policy community accumulated significance as a sign of the ability of the European Union to live up to its "united" name and to create for itself a peaceful post-Cold War security system across the continent. The future security organization and order of Europe became linked to the European Union's ability to "solve" the Yugoslavian crisis. Affirmation of the idea of Europe required that the war in that region be stopped. Failure by the European Union would not only reflect badly on the ability of that institution to develop its own independent security identity separate from the Americans but also tarnish the continental myths -- peace, progress and prosperity through integration and unity -- that underpinned the project of the European Union. The EU's failure would ultimately involve the United States for it served as the ultimate guarantor of the European security order.

As it transpired the European Community/Union, the CSCE and the United Nations did indeed fail to "solve" the Yugoslavian crisis, that is, end the warfare and ethnic cleansing promptly. While European and United Nations negotiators did have some initial successes in stopping the fighting in Croatia and brokering ceasefires in Bosnia, it was the persistence of the brutal warfare and crimes of ethnic cleansing in that republic which undermined their credibility. There were three major sets of European Union and United Nations' failures in the former Yugoslavia. The first was the very public debate and debacle over the recognition of the declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia. Domestically motivated moves by Germany's foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher to push for their recognition served to undermine the work of Lord Carrington's London Conference and the negotiations of Cyrus Vance on behalf of the United Nations. The EU's granting of advisory power over such an important matter to a legal commission (the Badinter Advisory Commission) in its meeting of December 16-17 1991 only served to diffuse power further and postpone problems of unity, problems dramatically compounded by Germany's unilateral recognition of Slovenia and Croatia on December 18 anyway despite the appointment of a Commission. In January 1992 the rest of the European Union followed Germany's lead and recognized the independence of these two countries, ignoring the Badinter Commission's recommendation to recognize Macedonia but not Croatia.

The second set of failures concerned the efforts of Cyrus Vance and Carrington's replacement David Owen to get the parties to the Bosnian conflict to agree to a permanent ceasefire and a new map for the republic. While much has been made of the American disquiet with this plan and supposed efforts to sabotage it (Gow 1997), the success of the negotiations were ultimately dependent upon the willingness of the parties to agree to an unequal peace without the background threat of force by the international community if they did not agree. Without the ability to use independent force to induce the parties to a ceasefire and settlement, Vance and Owen were, in effect, trying to facilitate the surrender of Bosnia as a unified multicultural state and to rationalize the results of the aggression and ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Serb militias and the rump Yugoslav army. This was hardly an affirmation of the idea of Europe -- though Campbell (1998, 162) argues that "the common political anthropology of both the peacemakers and the paramilitaries in the Bosnian war, with its nationalist nexus of territory and identity, is integral to the Western political imagination," a somewhat sweeping argument that collapses the differences between liberal realists (like Owen) and romantic fascist nationalists (like Radovan Karadzic) and tends towards an essentializing of the Western political imagination -- and contributed to the sense of failure when negotiations over the map collapsed and the fighting continued.

The third set of failures of the European Union were also those of the United Nations in the form of UNPROFOR. Originally established to police the ceasefire in eastern Croatia, UNPROFOR later became the significant peacekeeping force in Bosnia, made up of troops from the major EU powers (with the exception of Germany until mid-1995) and from non-EU countries like the Ukraine and Canada. While UNPROFOR's presence in Bosnia did undoubtedly save lives and enable people in besieged cities to survive cruel winters and inhumane wartime conditions, UNPROFOR was an ambivalent instrument of EU and UN policy in Bosnia, pursuing a mandate of neutrality in a land where genocide was occurring. UNPROFOR also constituted a political and bureaucratic self-interest for European powers in such a way as to discourage, hinder and block decisive forceful action by the international community as a whole against acts of genocide and to end the war. Without adequate military firepower, a more robust mandate and political support for a more decisive policy in Bosnia, UNPROFOR became the symbol of the political and moral bankruptcy of the European and United Nation's approach to the Bosnian war, an approach that recognized a "humanitarian tragedy" in the region but refused to address the underlying causes that had produced this human-designed and enforced "tragedy" (Rieff 1995). As the contradictory and unsustainable nature of the UNPROFOR mission generated further policy difficulties and failures while the Bosnian war dragged on, the image and credibility of the preeminent security alliance in Europe, NATO, was drawn into the crisis and began to suffer also.

The eroding credibility of NATO

When by 1991 it became apparent that the Cold War was over on the continent of Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, it could and did claim to be the most successful alliance system in history, an alliance that had won the Cold War. On the other hand, it was an alliance without an obvious post-Cold War role, a potential anachronism in the light of the new security environment brought into being by the arms control agreements signed by the Soviet Union and the United States in the latter half of the 1980s (Mandelbaum 1996). As many have noted, the functionality of NATO was always greater than merely providing military security for its members and deterring a possible Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe. NATO was also, as Lord Ismay famously declared, about keeping the Americans in and the Germans down. With strong American pressure, NATO began to re-cast its role in the post-Cold War Europe as a guarantor of the existing security environment on the continent and as a potential "out of area" power, responding to situations like the Gulf War. In November 1991, the alliance's heads of state adopted a "new strategic concept" which identified instabilities arising from economic, social and political reform in central and eastern Europe as the new danger faced by the alliance. The following summer NATO's foreign ministers asserted that the alliance's new role would be to perform European crisis management and peacekeeping in co-ordination with the CSCE/OSCE, the European Union, the West European Union, and the United Nations (Ullman 1996, 25).

The wars of dissolution in Yugoslavia provided NATO with a means of re-defining itself and operationalizing its new strategic concept and mission. As the international community stumbled towards a tougher policy in the region in response to mostly Bosnian Serb provocation and aggression, the power and prestige of NATO increasingly were put on the line. In July 1992 NATO established a joint naval operation with the West European Union to patrol the Adriatic to help enforce the UN's sanctions regime against the states of the former Yugoslavia. After the passage of a "no-fly" zone resolution in the UN, NATO undertook to enforce it in early 1993. After the declaration by the UN Security Council of a series of "safe areas" in Bosnia later in 1993, the UN in close co-ordination with NATO were charged with helping UNPROFOR, in compromise language that absurdly strived to maintain its neutrality in the conflict, to "act in self-defense" and "to deter aggression" against the "safe areas." A "dual key" system was established according to which requests for military support by UNPROFOR from NATO warplanes were to be approved both by the UN Secretary General's special representative in the region, the Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, and the North Atlantic Council, the co-ordinating center of NATO. In practice, this system of joint power and control over the use of military force in the former Yugoslavia was a disaster for it diffused military authority and made rapid reaction to provocations on the ground virtually impossible. Summing up the general problem of co-ordination between political and military institutions, Lieutenant General Francis Briquemont noted that "[t]here is a fantastic gap between the resolutions of the Security Council, the will to execute those resolutions, and the means available to commanders in the field" (cited in Weiss 1996, 64).

There were three sets of incidents where the prestige and credibility of NATO were asserted in Bosnia only to have that prestige deflated and that credibility seriously tarnished. The first was a series of "pin-prick" attacks by NATO against minor and symbolic targets in an effort to enforce UN Security Council resolutions. The first military engagement by NATO in its history was against four aging Yugoslav airforce airplanes. A month later NATO airplanes attacked an empty, rusted and obsolete tank. In November 1994, NATO aircraft struck once more, damaging the runway of an airport but deliberately leaving warplanes at the airport undamaged. In all cases, the NATO actions were circumscribed by fears of Bosnian Serb retaliation against UNPROFOR troops on the ground in Bosnia. The attacks were purely symbolic, designed as a form of communication to supposedly "send a message" about NATO capabilities and resolve. The "pin-prick" nature of the attacks, however, rendered them absurd and only intensified NATO's legitimacy crisis (the organization was also in the midst of a profound downsizing) as the small Bosnian Serb army was seen as standing up to the might of NATO. The message they sent was one of irresolution and they were justly criticized by security analysts in the media.

The second set of incidents where NATO power was initially asserted only to be later deflated concerned efforts to break the siege of Sarajevo, a city that had been declared by the UNSC as a "safe area." In February 1994, the Serb shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace killed 68 people and wounded 200. In response, NATO issued an ultimatum to both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian government forces to hand over their heavy weapons to UNPROFOR. The ultimatum was successful but momentum was quickly lost and within a few months the Bosnian Serbs had forcefully retaken their equipment from UNPROFOR storage areas. In May 1995, NATO responded to a series of Bosnian Serb attacks by bombing an ammunition dump in Pale. The Serbs responded by taking 350 UNPROFOR troops hostage and chaining them to potential NATO military targets. NATO was forced to back down and the troops of UNPROFOR humiliated. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke notes in his memoir that images of French troops waving white flags of surrender caused consternation in France and elsewhere. "The television pictures were appalling. That the world’s greatest powers would be brought to their knees by such thugs seemed to me inconceivable" (Holbrooke 1998, 64). UNPROFOR was forced to painstakingly negotiate with the Bosnian Serbs to get its soldiers released.

The third set of humiliations concerned the eastern Bosnian "safe areas" of Gorazde, Zepa and Srebrenica. NATO was charged with providing close air support for these areas if they were attacked. However, the concept and organization of the "safe areas" was flawed from the outset (Ó Tuathail forthcoming b). UNPROFOR troops were lightly equipped and almost completely dependent upon Serb good will for logistical supply. UN Military Commander Bernard Janvier recognized this and sought to re-consolidate UNPROFOR troops in central Bosnia, in effect abandoning the "safe areas." When the UNSC rejected his plan to do so, Janvier issued new instructions to UNPROFOR personnel in the "safe areas" to abandon rather than defend their positions if attacked. These instructions stated explicitly that execution of the UNSC mandate was secondary to the safety of UNPROFOR personnel (Honig and Both 1996, 156). As a consequence both of a general failure of leadership amongst the international community and the specific failure of the UN/NATO military leadership, the eastern "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa were overrun by the Bosnian Serb army, with appalling acts of genocide resulting. Despite a number of calls for close air support by the Dutch commander at Srebrenica, only one NATO attack was carried out, destroying a single piece of artillery (Rohde 1997). The impotency of NATO was evident for the international foreign policy audience to see.

For the sake of the continued viability and credibility of NATO something had to be done. Contingency plans for the withdrawal of UNPROFOR were at an advanced stage and it was the longstanding American commitment to aid UNPROFOR in the event of it needing to withdraw from Bosnia that finally provoked the White House into vigorous action. In his memoirs Richard Holbrooke (1998, 66) notes his astonishment when he was first briefed on the NATO contingency plans for an UNPROFOR withdrawal (Holbrooke 1998, 66). OpPlan 40-104 called for the use of 20,000 U.S. troops and risky night time withdrawal operations that were likely to generate casualties. Furthermore, the plan had an in-built "automaticity" meaning it was already approved by the NATO Council as the contingency plan for withdrawal. For Holbrooke, helping the UN withdraw made no sense but with the French threatening just such a strategy, the stakes for NATO were high. A refusal by the United States to support a withdrawal would have seriously damaged the alliance. The resulting recriminations, according to Holbrooke (1998, 67), could have mean the end of NATO as an effective alliance. "It was not an overstatement to say that America’s post-World War II security role in Europe was at stake."

The option of UN withdrawal was eventually rejected because it was likely to be seen as a devastating admission of failure on the part of the Western powers. A sign of a more muscular policy on the part of the Europeans was the deployment of the British and French joint mobile rapid reaction force which placed 12,000 men and much more powerful armaments than heretofore provided to UNPROFOR detachments in Sarajevo to robustly respond to aggression. The real turning point came at the London Conference of July 19 when NATO leaders moved towards the new American position of drawing "a line in the sand," a phrase deliberately used to evoke the Gulf War, against further Serb aggression (Holbrooke 1998, 72). NATO committed itself to the security of Gorazde (though implicitly abandoning the enclave of Zepa) and later Sarajevo. The "dual key" authority system was abandoned. When another Serb shell killed 37 civilians in Sarajevo's main market on August 28, 1995 NATO began a sustained bombing campaign from August 30 against Bosnian Serb positions (Operation Deliberate Force). The alliance had finally begun a campaign to restore its military credibility and prestige.  

Bosnia as a global leadership test
Up until 1995 the United States largely adhered to its policy of deferring to the interests of the major European powers when it came to Bosnia. For the sake of NATO unity and transatlantic cooperation the United States did not push a more muscular NATO policy while troops from France, Great Britain and other countries were on the ground and vulnerable in Bosnia. Yet through the NATO Council and the ‘Partnership for Peace’ program, American officials were learning of the worries of many of its NATO partners and aspirant members (like the Czech Republic whose president Vaslac Havel spoke publicly about the need to end the war) about the destabilizing effects of a long drawn out Bosnian war. By the summer of 1995 it was evident to most foreign policy observers and practicioners that European leadership, UNPROFOR engagement and occasional ‘dual key’ UN/NATO airstrikes were not going to end the war. Meanwhile, the United States had committed itself to the goal of expanding NATO eastwards as its way of establishing a new post-Cold War security architecture on the continent. This proposed transformation of the European geopolitical landscape was controversial and provocative. The persistence of the war in Bosnia and NATO’s failure there reflected badly on the alliance and its proposal of increased security through military alliance expansionism.

Within the context of institutional transitions in Europe and elsewhere, Bosnia developed significance as emblematic of the challenge of the new era, a persistently cited sign system for intractable ‘ethnic warfare’ (on the inadequacy of ‘ethnicity’ as a conceptualization of Bosnia see Campbell 1998, 88-93, 120-121). It was a test of the possibility of a more effective United Nations, a test of the foreign policy unity of the European Union, and a test of the future of NATO, multiple tests that were not being passed. Reflecting upon the crisis after he had left office, the former Bush administration official David Gombert (1996, 141) wrote that what U.S. foreign policy officials failed to see was that the Yugoslav crisis especially that in Bosnia "was setting the worst possible precedents for the new era. They did not appreciate the importance of defeating this case of malignant nationalism before it metastasized elsewhere in the former communist world."

This idea of Bosnia as a dangerous cancer had been articulated during the Bush administration. Back in 1992 U.S Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger described the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a "cancer in the heart of Europe" (Eagleburger 1992). The image of Bosnia as a cancer was a powerful one that enabled it to ‘jump scale’ and become a generic sign of illness in the global body politic. By 1995 the Clinton administration was using the image as a means of globalizing Bosnia. Bosnia was a dangerous symptom of ‘chaos’ and ‘ethnic hatred’ that needed to be stopped in its tracks. After the Dayton agreements, President Clinton went on television to explain why Bosnia was important. "A conflict that already has claimed so many lives could spread like poison throughout the region, eat away at Europe's stability and erode our partnership with our European allies." Justifying U.S. troop participation in implementing the Accords, eventually signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, Clinton interpreted Bosnia as a global challenge and test, a sign of the times. The necessity for American leadership in a globalizing era was his overriding theme:

As the Cold War gives way to the global village, our leadership is needed more than ever because problems that start beyond our borders can quickly become problems within them...nowhere has the argument for our leadership been more clearly justified than in the struggle to stop or prevent war and civil violence...There are times and places when our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war, and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic, strategic interests. My fellow Americans, in this new era there are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace. The terrible war in Bosnia is such a case (Clinton 1995).

Bosnia was represented as strategic because it was a sign for ‘ethnic strife’ and the dangers of ‘religious hatred’ globally. Bosnia was linked in administration rhetoric to other conflicts around the world and to ethnic and racial hatred breeding terrorism against Americans in Saudia Arabia and Oklahoma city. America had to act against the ‘Bosnia’ overseas in order to avoid a ‘Bosnia’ at home.4 American efforts to implement and enforce the peace symbolized the U.S.'s universal commitment to democracy and diversity.

This conceptual globalization of Bosnia was supplemented by its geographical inflation into a sign for Europe. In the November 1995 television broadcast, Clinton declared that securing peace in Bosnia will "help build a free and stable Europe." Taking geographic license, Clinton proclaimed that "Bosnia lies at the very heart of Europe, next-door to many of its fragile new democracies and some of our closest allies. Generations of Americans have understood that Europe's freedom and Europe's stability is vital to our own national security...That's way we created NATO and waged the Cold War. And that's why we must help the nations of Europe to end their worst nightmare since World War II, now" (Clinton 1995). For the sake of Bosnia, Europe, NATO, past generations of Americans and universal moral values, America needs to be strong and lead. "America," President Clinton declared during the 1996 presidential campaign, "truly is the world's indispensable nation" (Clinton 1996). As a strategic sign, "Bosnia" was not really about Bosnia as a place at all: it was about re-generating American identity and re-legitimating continuing American leadership in Europe and across the world in a globalizing era.

American leadership in the post-Cold War era, the future of Europe, the re-structuring and expansion of NATO, the nightmarish spectacle of warfare, the cancer of ‘ethnic hatred’: all had become symbolically tied to the Bosnian war by the middle of 1995 transforming what was once a geopolitically marginal zone into a strategic sign system for the United States and its role in the world. In December 1997 President Clinton announced that the United States would keep troops in Bosnia beyond the expiration of the mandate of SFOR, the NATO-lead stablization force. Approximately 8,500 American soldiers would remain as part of a NATO organized follow-up DFOR (Deterrent Force) mission. The declaration marked an important shift in U.S. foreign policy away from the Weinberger/Powell doctrine’s fixation with "exit strategies" (with deadlines for departure) towards a more flexible and ultimately more appropriate concern with "benchmarks" of progress in the state (for a foreign policy critique of "exit strategy" thinking see Rose 1998). In announcing the policy change and later visiting American forces in the region with Senator Robert Dole, President Clinton used Dole’s analogization of the geopolitical value of Bosnia to an American football game: "It’s like a football game, we’re in the fourth quarter, and we’re winning, and some people suggest we should walk off the field and forfeit the game. I don’t think we should. I think we ought to stay here, finish the game, and collect the win" (Clinton 1997). In geopolitically imagining Bosnia as a football game, Clinton was translating the problem into terms most American males (especially the soldiers he was addressing in Bosnia) instinctively understood. But the sports metaphor also abstracted Bosnia from its geographical context and cast US involvement there as one game in a larger global struggle the United States needed to win. Bosnia was not important in and of itself but because it happened to a place where American leadership and exceptionalism should be seen to win.

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