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Source: The Nation


George Kenney

The Nation, January 8/15, 1996

(George Kenney who writes frequently on foreign affairs,
resigned from the State Department in August 1992 to protest
Bush Administration policy in the former Yugoslavia.)

In my bones, I feel that putting 20.000 American troops in
Bosnia is a mistake.It's an invitation to a shipwreck because
our maps aren't any good. and imagination and pluck aren 't
enough to carry us through Balkan shoals. Insofar as U.S.
policy toward Bosnia has more to do with idealistic American
illusions than with genuine concern for parochial Balkan
interests, this is our Vietnam experience all over again.

I became a Yugoslav desk officer at the State Department's
headquarters in Washington in February 1992 where I worked
until I resigned over policy that August, calling for
American intervention. I had no background in the Balkans or
Eastern Europe; I hadn't been to Yugoslavia: I didn't even
speak Serbo-Croatian. I was on the desk long enough to
convince myself I knew what was going on and become certain
that missteps, delay and denial would produce a debacle for
U,S foreign policy, but not quite long enough to see the
bigger picture. I 've been on a learning curve ever since.

When I resigned I hoped to have more influence for
intervention outside government but over time I've changed my
mind substantially on the issues. Because of that, I've been
attacked in The New Republic and vilified by American
interventionists who now see me as a traitor to the cause
though both, evolving conditions and additional information
left me no recourse but to alter my initial conclusions.

I was one of the original authors of "lift and strike"
(lifting the United Nations arms embargo against the Bosnian
government and backing it with NATO air strikes), arguing for
it until early 1993; then, until late 1993. I argued for
forcibly disarming all combatants; and after that for a
variety of diplomatic plans backed by limited force.

My resignation brought immediate media attention and
invitations to speak, all of which I took to like a duck to
water. The first college I visited, William and Mary, turned
out an S.R.O. crowd of several hundred for my two-hour
extemporaneous address,and the crowd broke into a standing
ovation when I finished. I quickly realized that the call for
intervention in Bosnia was dynamite. That potency frightened
me because it implied a huge responsibility not to distort
the Truth for the sake of setting audience on fire. But I
worry that many interventionists have felt the same power and
been carried away.

When prominent intellectuals consistently level charges of
"genocide," comparing events in Bosnia to the Holocaust, we
must demand evidence. While any killing is to be condemned,
circumstantial evidence isn't enough, and while it's
unreasonable to expect absolute proof, there can be no
disdain for facts. There has never been evidence presented
for the widely accepted claim that 250,000 people were
butchered in Bosnia. Throughout the war, we haven ' t known
exactly what's happened, exactly how many have been killed
who they were or how they died. Mass graves on all sides
could contain civilians killed in cold blood or soldiers
killed in battle who needed a rapid burial or, most likely,
both. No doubt thousands were slaughtered in cold blood. This
doesn 't mean, however, that Bosnia was a killing field on
the order of Cambodia or Nazi Germany.

From contacts in the U.S. intelligence community, I am
positive the US government doesn't have proof of any
genocide. And anyone reading the press critically can see the
paucity of evidence, despite interminably repeated claims and
bloodcurdling speculation. Last April 23 I published some of
my research on fatalities in The New York Times Magazine, in
which I challenged allegations of 250,000 dead: my estimate
was 25,000 to 60,000 deaths. for civilian and military on all
sides in Bosnia, from the start of the war to the date of the
article. One Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent harangued
me for not giving up my sources, but never bothered retracing
my steps, which he could have easily done. I have yet to see
a written rebuttal, and I don't expect to, because a careful
search through press reports shows unambiguously that
estimates for huge numbers of fatalities came originally from
the Bosnian government without documentation: journalists
repeated them without corroboration, or even attribution,
until the charges stuck. Reporters covering the Yugoslav war
as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli put it (Nieman Reports. Fall 1993) "
have been better at pulling emotional strings than at
analyzing facts.

Much of the early war was fought not on the battlefield but,
through, high-powered (and high-priced) lobbying firms. Since
late 1992 there has also been a splendidly effective
volunteer army of journalists, think-tank analysts, Capitol
Hill staff and administration hawks pushing the Bosnian, and
Secondarily Croatian, causes. The mainstream establishment
couldn't bring itself to say "We don't know." To question
Washington's bias is taboo, as William Maynes, the editor of
" Foreign Policy" found out when he published such a
critique. The Serbs, unlike the Croats and Muslims, had
little understanding of the propaganda war and, without
patrons to guide them, quickly lost it without firing a shot.

The result is that everywhere that counts in America. it is
almost impossible to be too anti-Serb. And if you accept the
premise that the Serbs are wholly evil, two patently false
corollaries emerge: There can be no moral equivalence between
Serb-perpetrated atrocities and others, and it's all right to
give superficial attention to Croat and Muslim crimes. While
"ethnic cleansing" deaths and atrocities are not equally
distributed among the three sides, each group rightly feels
it has suffered enormously. Although the Serbs started as the
bloodier side and were responsible for the most atrocities
they make up the largest share of recent victims and may be
the most vulnerable potential victims. The Croats and Muslims
have perpetrated equally horrific albeit fewer and less
systematic, atrocities.

But if the United States gives the Croats and Muslims the
wherewithal to exact further tribal justice, they will. For
proof look at the Croats' scorched-earth practices regarding
land they' re supposed to hand over to the Serbs under the
Dayton agreement, or their refusal to deliver indicted war
criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the
Hague. And the echelon of Muslim leaders, deeply penetrated
by radical Islamist elements from Iran, continues to talk to
its domestic constituency of prolonged warfare.

Since leaving government I've worked as a writer and
consultant focusing on Balkan issues. I got to know the
senior leadership of Croatia and Bosnia fairly well, and as
time went by I found many were neither honest nor competent:
and many others were driven by pathological nationalism
(Croatian Defense minister Gojko Susan, for example, a former
Canadian pizza king).

In December 1992 in Zagreb. I spoke at length with Bosnian
President Allege Izetbezovic, who had minutes earlier come
out of a meeting with Croatian President Fringe Tudjman. Lord
Owen and Cyrus Vance (then the European Community and U..N.
mediators respectively). He told me he had just been forced
to make the most difficult decision of his life: to negotiate
directly for the first time with the Bosnian Sorb leader
Radovan Karadzic. Izetbegovic was clearly exhausted and
anguished over his decision; as we tasked he kept wondering
aloud whether he'd done the right thing. I said that by
agreeing to negotiate he had inexorably set the logic for
compromise that satisfied the Bosnian Serbs' most important
claims, Izetbegovic replied he wasn't interested in
compromise; he merely wanted to get from under Western
pressure. I saw this attitude more starkly the last time we
talked in December 1993 in Sarajevo. lzetbegovic kept going
over the pros and cons of his options, but ruled out taking a
strong stand against Western mediators because he didn't want
to be seen by history as the spoiler" of an agreement. His
intention seemed to be to pretend to go along with
negotiations while continuing the war. Never, in the course
of those conversations or several others we had in
Washington, did he voice doubts about the cost of the war to
the Bosnian people. In this one certainty amid his otherwise
incessant vacillation he has been consistent. Confirming this
aspect of the man, The New York Times, reporting on the
Dayton talks. noted American negotiators' amazement that
Izetbegovic seemed to think war was more important than peace
and reconstruction.

From the beginning, the United States should have engaged
seriously in diplomacy: in particular. U.S. support for
European efforts in the spring of 1992 might have prevented
war. That March, the three factions had agreed to a plan
similar to the Dayton agreement. Unfortunately, Izetbegovic
reneged on his word after encouragement from U. S. Ambassador
Warren Zimmerman, and the deal fell apart. Two weeks later
U.S, and European recognition of Bosnia triggered the war.

I9ve often been asked at what point I changed my mind, But it
wasn't ever so simple - I had no conversion. Rather, it was a
cumulative process. As mistrustful as I was of the Serbs
generally, and aware of their culpability for he war,
nevertheless I began to feel some sympathy for the political
dilemma they faced in the former Yugoslavia. Their search for
elemental justice, however criminal their tactics, should
have been considered. To be evenhanded, Washington should
have treated in a procedurally equal way all the factions
'claims to self-determination. It goes beyond a consideration
of power balances. American interests,as I understand them,
flow from our philosophical support for local political
legitimacy; we should not be in the business of imposing
arbitrary solutions from above.

Slippery slope and tar baby arguments blinded George Bush's
team to the harm done by America in not exercising diplomatic
leadership. They failed to admit until the spring of 1992
that Europe couldn't pick up the slack; even so, the U.S.
didn't directly participate in international mediation
efforts until the first London Conference that August. By
then, however, Bush and his Secretary of Stale James Baker,
had used such heated rhetoric about the principles at stake
(rhetoric I helped write) that it wasn't possible to seize
pragmatic solutions and throw the rhetoric overboard without
damaging American prestige.

But it wasn't possible to act on the rhetoric unless the
United States was prepared to use force and escalate to
whatever level was necessary to achieve our stated goals.
Whether the American public was more prepared then than it is
now to become engaged is not so clear, but leadership by the
Bush Administration could have galvanized support. Its
willingness to drift was the heart of the problem.

President Bush thus anchored the United States in a totally
irresponsible position, which President Clinton uncritically
adopted. Indeed the legacy of rhetorical excess has carried
over to undermine the Dayton agreement. By granting U.S.
forces authority (without requiring its use) to conduct an
expansive mission covering everything under the sun, the
Clinton Administration cannot then define in precise terms
what the mission is - the yardstick for success or failure -
and instead speaks vaguely of a one-year time limit, The U.S.
army of occupation has an exit date, but no exit strategy.
Instead of over determining the outcome of negotiations by
promising too much, the United States should have continued
negotiations until the parties themselves agreed to a
settlement that was Iargely self-enforcing.

When I started on the Balkan desk I quickly became convinced
by the strong consensus among intelligence analysts that
recognition would worsen problems in Croatia and bring war in
Bosnia, I went so far as to explore with a senior CIA Balkan
analyst, possible land and population swaps in Bosnia that
might reduce conflict before recognition. Once the United
States recognized Bosnia, however, I wrongly thought the
commitment implied by that decision - the most basic
commitment the conservative state system can make -
superseded objections because it required the people of the
former Yugoslavia to play by our rules.

Reflecting on my mistaken judgment, I've often thought of the
Iliad's deities. who knew better, when tipping the scales of
The Trojan war, than to try to change the behavior of human
warriors. It's arrogant to assume Americans can resolve all
others' conflicts with a result that is guaranteed to be
democratic. lf we tip the scales enough to make them stop
fighting - and we can - they'll continue with their own
political evolution.

Recognition of Yugoslavia's successor states was the tap root
of European and American policy failure. We had not thought
through principles of self-determination: instead, Western
governments recognized Bosnia as a way to punish the Serbs
because we believed they were guilty of aggression. In a
vicious circle, recognition then put off-limits the issues
that caused the war in the first place because it
automatically defined one side as an international aggressor,
subject to further punishment. It also violated centuries of
international legal tradition not to recognize separatist
bodies in a civil war until the dust clears. (Actually, there
may be fewer reasons to worry about the consequences of
admitting a mistake than there are principled reasons to
avoid such a mangled precedent for the next case of
international intervention in a major civil war.)

The Clinton team correctly realized in mid- 1995 that unless
recognition was amended somehow, the problems of
self-determination in the former Yugoslavia couldn't be fully
addressed. Since withdrawing recognition was too politically
costly, the Administration accepted de facto partition.
Officials erred though, that the implications of Bosnia's
sovereign status still make a good justification for beating
up on the Serbs. I believe, to the contrary, that ephemeral
larger interests allegedly associated with recognition pale
in importance beside the real suffering in the region and the
useless deaths we will incur as we try to impose an unwelcome
settlement. American objectives should be limited simply to
ending the war, using minimal force as required. We have
missed the opportunity to negotiate an inherently more stable
agreement. Ideally, a European ground force of 20,000 to
30,000,backed by American air power and having robust rules
of engagement but without a hidden nation-building mission,
could police the confrontation lines of a genuine cease-fire,
which the parties could agree to without international
coercion. lntervention on other grounds predisposes us to
take sides and (unintentionally) subsidize the very same
horrors we condemn.

Tom Gjelten of NPR once remarked to me that it's hard to make
sense of the Yugoslav war because everyone is seen as having
a vested interest, or is accused of having one. For
intellectuals who believe they influence policy, those vested
interests have until now been affected less by events in the
former Yugoslavia than by wanting to stand on the right side
- for truth, justice and so forth. The American intellectual
establishment. indeed has lost its collective lead over
imperialistic panaceas, putting itself squarely at odds with
the vast majority of public opinion. When there are questions
about that kind of vested interest people don't really
respond in the sophisticated way Gjelten meant, but instead
turn Bosnia into a foreign policy Rorschach test. I think-and
I hate to admit this- the real story as far as the public
debate is concerned has been mainly about popular illusions
and ordinary human incompetence at learning foreign politics,
a far cry from the notion that Bosnia is the moral proving
ground of my generation. Government officials must now think
clearly for American troops to have the best chance of
getting out of the Balkans safely.