William J. Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense
100th Landon Lecture
March 9, 1995
The Consequences and Choices of Alternative Security Policies in Bosnia
Life is about choices. The playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, "Where choice begins, Paradise ends, innocence ends, for what is Paradise, but the absence of the need to choose."
You as individuals make choices every day, and you will live with the consequences of these choices -- good or bad. Nations also make choices. Those choices are not as easily altered as those made by individuals. The consequences are far greater, the prices far higher.
Today, America faces distinct and very difficult choices regarding its policy in Bosnia -- a place where paradise and innocence ended long ago. These choices are being actively debated in Washington. However, much of the debate on policy alternatives is taking place without an informed consideration of the consequences of these alternatives. The choice of a particular policy alternatives leads us inexorably down a path, driven by an iron logic from consequence to consequence. A major part of my job is to consider and to prepare for the defense consequences of the choices we make among the alternative security policies. Today I would like to discuss these with you.
Bosnia may very well be the toughest security policy issue we face today. Under Tito, it was said that Yugoslavia consisted of seven neighbors, six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, and one country. Even if Yugoslavia ever was one country, today it certainly is not. Over the past four years, Yugoslavia has completely disintegrated. The collapse of Yugoslavia left Bosnia as an independent state for the first time in its history. But Bosnia was not only a new state, it was a very unstable state. It included Muslims, Croats, and Serbs -- three rival ethnic groups. Bosnia's tradition of pluralism was shattered when the Serbs, who were the dominant ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia, now found themselves as the minority ethnic group in the newly independent Bosnia.
The Serbs were a minority, but they were a heavily armed minority. So in 1992 the Serbs in Bosnia decided to take advantage of their military superiority and began making war on the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Muslims who controlled the government. This has been called a civil war, but it is also a war of aggression, since the Bosnian Serbs have been supported by their ethnic cousins in Serbia.
I am not agnostic about who the victims are in this war. The Bosnian Government and its supporters are the victims. The atrocities that are perpetrated by the Serbs, in particular the "ethnic cleansing," are abhorrent.
Our government and the international community support the Bosnian Government. We have formally recognized the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sovereign nation.
Serbia, on the other hand, is the subject of an international economic embargo and political censure for Serb actions in Bosnia. Currently, the Bosnian Serbs control about 70 percent of the territory in Bosnia. The United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia have put a proposal on the table that preserves a unified state and gives the Serbs 49 percent of the land of Bosnia, and leaves the Bosnian Muslims and Croats in control of the other 51 percent. That proposal was rejected by the Serbs.
As a consequence, I do not see the prospect of a near-term political solution.
Many people, while sympathizing with the Bosnian Muslims, find the situation too confusing, too complicated and too frustrating. Some are even tempted to throw up their hands. They say that Bosnia is a tragedy, but not our tragedy. They say that we should wash our hands of the whole situation and walk away.
This view is not only questionable from a moral standpoint, it is also flat-out wrong from a national security standpoint. It is true that we do not have what I call "vital" national security interests in Bosnia. That is to say, the survival of the United States is not threatened by actions in Bosnia. But we do have a security interest in preventing the violence from spreading and from stimulating a broader European war. We do have a security interest in limiting the violence. And we certainly have a humanitarian interest in mitigating the violence. In my view, walking away is not an option.
What are the options? Stripped to their essence, we have essentially two choices. Choice A is to stick with our current policy of limiting the threat of the war and its impact on people while we are working for peace. Choice B is to begin actively helping the Bosnian Government achieve its political and its military goals.
Under Choice A, we are working to limit the spread of the conflict beyond Bosnia's borders. To that end, we have U.S. troops participating in the United Nations force in Macedonia. We are limiting the violence and the casualties by enforcing a No-Fly Zone over Bosnia, and by enforcing zones around urban centers where heavy weapons are excluded. We are mitigating the effects of the violence by airlifting food and medical supplies to civilian populations. Finally, we are participating in diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement based on the plan that the multinational group has put forward.
We have had significant success with the first three of these actions. Before NATO began enforcing a No-Fly Zone, Bosnian cities were being bombed, with many, many casualties. Before we established a heavy weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, there were bombardments going on in that city, including artillery bombardments, sometimes of a thousand shells a day. In Sarajevo alone, there were 10,000 civilian casualties that resulted from this bombardment. So our efforts have saved thousands of lives; and thousands more have been saved by the delivery of food and medicine.
Fourteen nations are contributing over 12,000 United Nation troops to protect enclaves, deliver supplies, and to serve as buffers between the factions. Six nations, including the United States, are participating in a NATO air operation which enforces the No-Fly Zone and the weapons exclusion zone, and which delivers humanitarian supplies.
These efforts have been very well executed and have done real good, but we have not succeeded in the fourth goal -- achieving a peace settlement. People find this frustrating. I find it frustrating. Many are further frustrated that our policies have not assisted the Bosnian people in their struggle to reverse the Serb gains and to punish those who participate in "ethnic cleansing." These people support what I call Choice B, taking active measures to help the Bosnian Government achieve its political and military goal.
My thesis today is that the active measures which have been proposed for that purpose send the United States headlong down a slippery slope. At the bottom of that slope will be American troops in ground combat; will be a humanitarian catastrophe; will be a wider war; or perhaps all three together.
Nearly everyone accepts that sending American troops for ground combat in Bosnia is a non-starter. There is no support for this idea among the public or in Congress. American casualties undoubtedly would be high -- far higher than anyone could justify based on our interests. Consequently, even critics of our present policy do not propose sending American ground troops to help the Bosnian Government win the war. Ironically, many of those same people have other ideas on how to help Bosnia which could very well lead to the same result.
One suggestion is that America conduct air strikes to help Bosnian military forces. But no responsible military commander believes we can change the outcome of the war with an air campaign alone. Bosnia is not Iraq. Bosnia is wooded, mountainous, and often blanketed by clouds. The Serbs spread out their weapons over a wide area and often place them in the middle of population centers. These factors combine to make it unlikely that air power by itself can be effective in stopping the Serbs. In order for an air campaign to be even partially effective, our pilots would need the assistance of trained, ground-based, forward observers to help coordinate their strikes. So we would have the prospect of captured pilots, of casualties on the ground among the observers, and of very heavy civilian casualties -- including casualties among the population we are trying to help.
Another suggested way to help the Bosnian Government cause, and a course which has been popular with many members of Congress, is for the United States to unilaterally lift the arms embargo which is now on the Bosnian Government. The arms embargo went into effect in 1991 and it applies to all of the states of the former Yugoslavia. Its purpose, of course, is to limit the destructive power of all combatants in the region. However, because the Serbs inherited most of the weapons of Tito's Yugoslav armed forces, the embargo froze in place a military imbalance. The Bosnian Government has no such inheritance and has been up against a much stronger Serb force with a significant advantage in tanks and other heavy weapons. Proponents of unilaterally lifting the embargo as it applies to the Bosnian Government say they want at least to make it a fair fight. That's a strong moral argument.
This course has been called "lift and leave." Its proponents like it because they believe this course is virtually risk-free for the United States -- that it does not put American soldiers, sailors, and airmen in harm's way. Thus, this course appears to satisfy our urge to "do something about Bosnia" at no cost to America. These proponents also make the point that by leveling the battlefield, pressure will be brought on the Serbs to agree to a just peace.
These results are clearly desirable, but what is the likelihood that a unilateral lift without more U.S. involvement would achieve those results? More critical observers of this course call it "lift and pray" because it is a dangerously flawed proposition. If one follows this course step by step to its logical conclusion, it also leads to U.S. ground troops fighting in Bosnia -- the very situation the proponents say they are trying to avoid.
Simply authorizing U.S. manufacturers to sell arms to Bosnia will not, in and of itself, level the battlefield. To truly level the battlefield, to equalize the two warring forces, will take a major commitment to ensure that the arms reach Bosnia. Since the Bosnians do not have the financial resources, either the U.S. or a third party would have to supply the funds.
Should the U.S. assume this responsibility, the financial costs are substantial, but would be the least of our problems.
We would also need to get the arms into the hands of the Bosnians. The Bosnians do not have a navy or an air force capable of coming and getting the weapons. So proponents of lifting the embargo must also assume that the United States would be responsible for delivering the weapons. Sea and land delivery would require cooperation from a third party -- Croatia -- which has its own interests at stake and may not cooperate. All airfields in Bosnia are within range of Bosnian-Serb artillery, so all arriving aircraft would be subject to ground fire. Realistically, then, we could expect American casualties even in the delivery of these supplies.
As we delivered these supplies, we would be in the extremely awkward position of defying the other NATO nations with forces operating the same area who are enforcing the arms embargo against all of the states of the former Yugoslavia. Are American ships and planes supposed to evade and elude the ships and planes of our NATO allies with whom we worked these past four years trying to enforce the embargo?
Let me assume that we could find a relatively safe way to deliver arms to the Bosnian Government. We'd then have to deal with the question of training the Bosnian soldiers to use these weapons. The Bosnians don't just need rifles or grenades, they need sophisticated arms to counter the Serbian advantage in heavy weapons. Using such arms takes training. We know from our own experience that it is not just arms, but training in their use that makes a force effective. So we will also have to consider using American soldiers to train the Bosnian forces.
Assuming that we can solve the arms financing, delivery, and training questions, we face a different set of issues that evolve around this question: How would the Serbs react to the prospect of arms on their way to Bosnia? What if they launched preemptive strikes to gain a military victory on the ground before the arms shipment arrived? In particular, what if the Serbs attacked the isolated UN-protected enclaves in Bosnia? This would result in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
If our decision to lift the embargo results in Serbs overrunning the enclaves and massive civilian casualties, what do we do? What is our responsibility at that point? We would face a difficult moral and political dilemma, and an even more difficult military problem. From a moral and political standpoint, there would be enormous pressure on us to retaliate in some way to stop this carnage, but militarily, that would not be easy. Air strikes could punish the Serbs, but they could not change the outcome or stop the killing. Indeed, it would only expand the violence.
That brings us to yet another set of problems. Even if we resisted the pressure to do something and instead simply watched the enclaves being overrun, we would still have to deal with the inevitable evacuation of the UN peacekeeping forces. Key countries contributing peacekeepers have already firmly stated that they will not keep them in Bosnia if the United States lifts the embargo. That means humanitarian relief will stop flowing, and we would have to decide whether to take over the protection of relief operations now being done by the UN or simply stand by and watch people starve
In addition, if it's decided that UN forces have to evacuate Bosnia, we are committed, in principle, to participating in a NATO operation to help get them out, subject to consultation with the Congress. To do this operation properly, NATO and the U.S. will have to send in substantial numbers of ground combat forces, the very situation we are trying to avoid. While it's possible that an evacuation of UN forces from Bosnia may become necessary down the road no matter what we do, unilaterally lifting the embargo will make that evacuation a certainty -- not just a possibility.
Unilateral lift would also undermine our most important security objective in the region, which is to prevent the conflict from spreading to other parts of the former Yugoslavia, possibly leading to a much wider war in the Balkins.
In sum, unilateral lift could lead to a humanitarian disaster, it could lead to American ground troops in Bosnia, and it could lead to a wider war, or it could lead to all three of those. If the arms embargo is to be lifted, it must be done in a multilateral way because only by involving the international community generally on the side of the Bosnians can we avoid many, but not all, of the problems of unilateral lift.
In short, unilateral lift is not an alternative to intervention with ground troops, it is merely another means of reaching that same result. It is an attempt to influence the war on the cheap. It is a policy that does not help the people of Bosnia and does not advance America's interests in the Balkans.
In addition, unilateral lift is detrimental to America's interest in a wider sphere. Without question, it would drive a wedge between the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance -- a wedge deeper than any in NATO's history.
Taken as a whole, these are disastrous and unacceptable consequences which bring me back to Choice A -- continuing with our present policy: trying to contain the conflict, limiting the violence and its effects, and supporting negotiations to a peaceful settlement.
While we can reasonably expect this policy to continue to be successful in preventing the spread of the war, and to continue to be successful in limiting both the fighting and its effects, I confess that this policy gives me no great moral satisfaction because it does not give America much leverage on influencing a peace settlement. Our approach has been to facilitate the parties in reaching that settlement, recognizing that we do not have enough leverage to force a settlement. To force a peace on the combatants, we would have to be willing to fight a war, and that is an unacceptable level of commitment
Bosnia is a tragedy which will end only when the parties themselves conclude that their interests are served better by a negotiated settlement than by continuing the war. We understand that this may take some time. That is why we are committed to those actions which lower the level of violence and mitigate the suffering while these peace talks continue.
I am fully aware of the shortcomings of our present approach, but there are no good options in Bosnia. We must be very wary of the siren call coming from those who say that there are easy and painless ways for America to do something about Bosnia. There are many ways we can do something -- none of them turn out to be easy. None of them turn out to be painless.
I began by talking about choices and consequences. Let me end by returning to this theme. Political life offers many opportunities for posturing, for pretending there are simple solutions to complex problems. Bosnia as a policy issue is not difficult. It is painful, but it's not difficult. When you look carefully at the consequences, it is easy to make a choice between our two options.
John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "Politics is not the art of the possible. Rather it consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."
Our present course in Bosnia has been called unpalatable, but the alternative -- unilaterally lifting the embargo -- would prove to be disastrous. It's a course of action which might make us feel good today, but result in the pointless spilling of American blood tomorrow.
I have shared with you today the consequences of alternative policy options in Bosnia. The truth, as I said, is unpalatable. It is, nonetheless, important to understand the truth. During the Second World War Winston Churchill once said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry away without being affected by it."
I have tried today to make you stumble over the truth about Bosnia, and I hope that you will be affected by it. Thank you.