Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended

Ivo H. Daalder

For over four years following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the onset of war, first in Croatia and then in Bosnia, the United States refused to take the lead in trying to end the violence and conflict. While many have written eloquently and passionately to explain Washington’s—and the West’s—failure to stop the ethnic cleansing, the concentration camps, and the massacres of hundreds of thousands of civilians, few have examined why, in the summer of 1995, the United States finally did take on a leadership role to end the war in Bosnia.

One notable exception is Richard Holbrooke, who recounts his own crucial contribution to the negotiation of the Dayton Peace Accords in his book To End a War. But Holbrooke’s account leaves unclear what, in addition to his own brokering role, accounts for the turnaround in U.S. policy, including the critical decision to take a leadership role in trying to end the war. It was on the basis of that decision that Holbrooke subsequently undertook his negotiating effort.

What, then, explains the Clinton administration’s decision in August 1995 at long last to intervene decisively in Bosnia? Why, when numerous previous attempts to get involved in Bosnia were half-hearted in execution and ended in failure? The answer is complex, involving explanations at two different levels. First, at the policy level, the day-to-day crisis management approach that had characterized the Clinton administration’s Bosnia strategy had lost virtually all credibility. It was clear that events on the ground and decisions in allied capitals as well as on the Capitol Hill were forcing the administration to seek an alternative to muddling through.

Second, at the level of the policy-making process, the president encouraged his national security adviser and staff to develop a far-reaching and integrated strategy for Bosni a that abandoned the incremental approach of past efforts. This process produced agreement on a bold new strategy designed to bring the Bosnia issue to a head in 1995, before presidential election politics would have a chance to intervene and instill a tendency to avoid the kind of risk-taking behavior necessary to resolve the Bosnia issue.

The Breaking Point
Although the evolution of America’s Bosnia policy, including the predicament of the Clinton administration in the summer of 1995, is relatively well known, the details of the administration’s policy-making process during this period are not. Based on new extensive research, including numerous interviews with key participants, it is now possible to begin filling in some of the critical details on how the administration arrived at its decision in August 1995. Though few realized it at the beginning of the year, 1995 would prove to be the decisive year for Bosnia’s future. That shift stemmed from a decision, reached by the Bosnian Serb leadership in early March, that the fourth year of the war would be its last. The Bosnian Serb objective was clear: to conclude the war before the onset of the next winter. The strategy was simple, even if its execution was brazen. First, a large-scale attack on the three eastern Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde—each an international ‘safe’ area lightly protected by a token U.N. presence—would swiftly capture these Muslim outposts in Serb-controlled Bosnian territory. Next, attention would shift to Bihac—a fourth, isolated enclave in north-western Bosnia—which would be taken over with assistance from Croatian Serb forces. Finally, with the Muslims on the run, Sarajevo would become the grand prize, and its capture by the fall would effectively conclude the war.

Betrayal in Srebrenica
As the Bosnian Serb strategy unfolded through the spring and into summer, the 20,000-strong U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia confronted a fateful dilemma. UNPROFOR could actively oppose the Bosnian Serb effort and side with the Muslim victims of the war. But this would entail sacrificing the evenhandedness that is the hallmark of U.N. peacekeeping. Alternatively, UNPROFOR could preserve its much-vaunted neutrality and limit its role to protecting humanitarian relief supplies and agencies. But this would effectively leave the Muslims to face the Bosnian Serb assault virtually unprotected.

Washington’s preference was clear. It repeatedly demanded that the U.N. forces either stop the latest Bosnian Serb assault or, at the very least, agree to NATO air strikes to punish the Serb forces and protect the “safe” areas. Most European allies had a different view. Unlike the United States, many Europeans had placed their troops at risks by participating in the U.N. operation on the understanding that their involvement would be limited to a strictly humanitarian mandate. When limited air strikes in late May 1995 resulted in nearly 400 peacekeepers being taken hostage, a consensus quickly emerged within the U.N. and among the troop-contributing countries that, however limited, NATO air strikes would do more harm than good. The United Nations force would return to “traditional peacekeeping principles”. This sent the not-so-subtle message to the Bosnian Serbs that they were now free to pursue their preferred strategy. That strategy, called “ethnic cleansing,” involved using murder, rape, expulsion and imprisonment on a large scale to drive Muslims and Croats from territory the Bosnian Serbs wished to claim.

The Bosnian Serbs implemented their strategy with horrifying results. In July, Serb forces turned their focus to Srebrenica, a small village near the eastern border with Serbia swollen with some 60,000 Muslim refugees. It was there that the then-U.N. commander, French General Philippe Morillon, had two years earlier made the U.N.’s final stance, declaring at the time: “You are now under U.N. protection of the United Nations…. I will never abandon you.” Despite the U.N. flag flying over the enclave, the Bosnian Serb assault in July 1995 met no U.N. resistance either on the ground or from the air. Within 10 days, tens of thousands of Muslim refugees streamed into the Muslim-controlled city of Tuzla. Missing from the stream of refugees were more than 7,000 men of all ages, who had been executed in cold blood – mass murder on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the end of World War II.


“No More Pinpricks”Srebrenica was the West’s greatest shame, with each of the 7,079 lives lost underscoring the failure to act in time to avert this single most genocidal act of the Bosnian war. Guilt led senior representatives of the United States and its key allies to agree in London a few days later that NATO would make a strong stand at Gorazde by defending the town’s civilian population. (This decision was later extended to the three other remaining ‘safe’ areas of Bihac, Sarajevo, and Tuzla; Zepa had earlier fallen to the Bosnian Serbs). The allies agreed that an attack on, or even a threat to, Gorazde would be met with a “substantial and decisive” air campaign. “There’ll be no more “pinprick” strikes,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared. A few days later, the North Atlantic Council worked out the final operational details of the air campaign and passed the decision to NATO’s military commanders on when to conduct the strikes.

Breaking Out of the Box
By the end of July the United States and its allies confronted a situation that required concerted action. The strategy of muddling through that had characterized U.S. policy since the beginning of the conflict clearly was no longer viable. The president made clear to his senior advisers that he wanted to get out of the box in which U.S. policy found itself. This box had been created by an unworkable diplomatic strategy of offering ever greater concessions to Serb President Slobodan Milosevic just to get the Bosnian Serbs to the table; by the long-standing refusal to put U.S. troops on the ground; by allied resistance to using force as long as their troops could be taken hostage; by a U.N. command that insisted on “traditional peacekeeping principles” even though a war was raging; and by a U.S. Congress bent on taking the moral high ground by unilaterally lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government without, however, taking responsibility for the consequences of doing so.

Yet, the Clinton administration had been here before. In early 1993 it rejected the Vance-Owen Peace Plan; in May 1993 it tried to sell a policy to lift the arms embargo and conduct air strikes while the Muslims were being armed; and in 1994 it had sought repeatedly to convince the allies to support strategic air strikes. Each time, the new policy was rejected or shelved, and an incremental, crisis management approach was once again substituted for a viable approach to end the war.

Why was the summer of 1995 any different? Why the emergence of a firm consensus on a concerted strategy now when it had eluded the Clinton administration for over two years? The answer, in part, lies in the horrors witnessed by Srebrenica—a sense that this time the Bosnian Serbs had gone too far. That certainly proved to be the case in the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary William Perry and JCS Chairman John Shalikashvili took the lead in pushing for the kind of vigorous air campaign that was finally agreed to in London. The real reason, however, was the palpable sense that Bosnia was the cancer eating away at American foreign policy, in the words of Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security adviser. U.S. credibility abroad was being undermined perceptibly by what was happening in Bosnia, and by the America’s and NATO’s failure to end it. With presidential elections a little over a year away, the White House in particular felt the need to find a way out.

It was a way out that the president demanded from his foreign policy team in June 1995. Spearheaded by the National Security Council staff and strongly supported by Madeleine Albright (then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), America’s first coherent Bosnia strategy was developed. This strategy for the first time matched force and diplomacy in a way that would break the policy impasse that had strangled Washington for so long. It was debate by the president and his senior advisers over the course of three days in August and, when accepted by Clinton, became the basis for the diplomatic triumph in Dayton three months later.

Lake Pushes the Process
Given the worsening atrocities in Bosnia and the growing discontent with U.S. policy, how did the administration move from its paralysis of 1994 to its constructive role in late 1995? In May ’95, Tony Lake first began to consider how U.S. policy toward Bosnia might be changed in a more productive direction. He began to meet informally with key people on his NSC staff (including his deputy, Sandy Berger, and his chief Bosnia aides Sandy Vershbow and Nelson Drew) to consider how the United States could help to change the tide of war.

It had long been clear that progress toward a negotiated settlement was possible only if the Bosnian Serbs understood that not achieving a diplomatic solution would cost them dearly. For nearly a year, the United States and its Contact Group partners (Britain, France, Germany, and Russia) had sought to pressure the Bosnian Serb leadership headquartered in Pale into agreeing to commence serious negotiations by convincing Milosevic to cut off economic and, especially, military assistance to the Bosnian Serbs. Despite being offered various incentives (including direct negotiations with the United States and the suspension of U.N. economic sanctions), Milosevic never followed through.

This left military pressure—the threat or actual use of force against the Bosnian Serbs—as the only real lever to convince Pale that a diplomatic solution was in its interests. Yet, more than two years of trying to convince the NATO allies of this fact had led nowhere. At each and every turn, London, Paris, and other allies had resisted the kind of forceful measures that were required to make a real impact on the Bosnian Serb leadership. In their informal discussions, Vershbow and Drew suggested that the only way to overcome this resistance was to equalize the risks between the United States on the one hand and those allies with troops on the ground on the other. This could be achieved either by deploying U.S. forces alongside European troops or forcing the withdrawal of the U.N. force. Since the president had consistently ruled out deploying American ground forces to Bosnia except to help enforce a peace agreement, the only way significant military pressure could be brought to bear on the Bosnian Serbs would be after UNPROFOR had been withdrawn. Lake agreed with this assessment and proposed that his staff begin to work on a “post-withdrawal” strategy—the steps that the U.S. should take once UNPROFOR was gone.

UNPROFOR as Obstacle
The NSC’s conclusion that the U.N. force was part of the problem in Bosnia rather than part of the solution was shared by Madeleine Albright, long the Clinton administration’s chief hawk on Bosnia. In June 1995, she once again made her case, presenting Clinton with a passionately argued memorandum urging a new push for air strikes in order to get the Bosnian Serbs to the table. Albright’s memo noted that if air strikes required the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, then so be it. The president agreed with the thrust of her argument, having himself come to see UNPROFOR as posing an obstacle to a solution for Bosnia. As Clinton well knew, the U.N. force accounted for allied opposition not only to air strikes but also to lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia that had effectively deprived the government of exerting its right to self-defense.

However, just as the White House and Albright reached the conclusion that UNPROFOR might have to go sooner rather than later, senior officials in the State and Defense Departments became increasingly worried about the consequences of a U.N. withdrawal from Bosnia. Specifically, they were concerned that UNPROFOR’s departure would require the deployment of up to 25,000 American troops to assist in the withdrawal—as the administration had committed in December 1994. Holbrooke recounts that he was “stunned” and that Christopher was “amazed” by the degree to which the U.S. appeared to be committed to this “bold and dangerous” plan. Rather than focusing on how the situation in Bosnia could be resolved, State and Defense urged the United States to do nothing that would force the allies to decide that the time for UNPROFOR’s departure had come. Instead, the emphasis should be on keeping the U.N. force in place, even if that meant acceding to allied wishes not to conduct any further air strikes to halt Bosnian Serb military advances or to offer further concessions to Milosevic in a piecemeal effort to get Pale to the negotiating table.

The Endgame Strategy
Given the State and Defense Departments’ position on this issue, Anthony Lake faced a critical choice. He could accept that there was no consensus for anything beyond continuing a policy of muddling through, or he could forge a new strategy and get the president to support a concerted effort seriously to tackle the Bosnia issue once and for all. Having for over two years accepted the need for consensus as the basis of policy and, as a consequence, failed to move the ball forward, Lake now decided that the time had come to forge his own policy initiative. He was strengthened in this determination by the president’s evident desire for a new direction.

On a Saturday morning in late June, Lake and his chief NSC aides gathered in his West Wing office for an intensive, four-hour long discussion on what to do in Bosnia. A consensus soon emerged on three key aspects of a workable strategy. First, UNPROFOR would have to go. In its stead would come either a new NATO force deployed to enforce the terms of a peace agreement or the kind of concerted military action by the United States and NATO that the U.N.’s presence had so far prevented. Second, if a deal was to be struck between the parties, it was clear that such an agreement could not fulfill all demands for justice. A diplomatic solution that reversed every Bosnian Serb gain simply was not possible. Third, the success of a last-ditch effort to get a political deal would depend crucially on bringing the threat of significant force to bear on the parties. The last three years had demonstrated that without the prospect of the decisive use of force, the parties would remain intransigent and their demands maximalist.

Lake asked Vershbow to draft a strategy paper on the basis of this discussion. The national security adviser also told the president about the direction of his thinking. He specifically asked Clinton whether he should proceed along this path with the knowledge that in a presidential election year the United States would have to commit significant military force either to enforce an agreement or to bring about a change in the military balance of power on the ground. Clinton told Lake to go ahead, indicating that the status quo was no longer acceptable.

Vershbow’s paper set forth an “endgame strategy” for Bosnia—thus emphasizing both its comprehensive nature and its goal of ending the policy impasse in Washington. The strategy proposed a last-ditch effort to reach a political solution acceptable to the parties. The outlines of such a solution, which was based on the Contact Group plan of 1994, included: recognition of Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its existing borders; division of Bosnia into two entities—a Bosnian Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation; entity borders would be drawn in a compact and defensible manner, with the federation territory accounting for at least 51 percent of the total; and acceptance of special parallel relationships between the entities and neighboring states including the possibility of conducting a future referendum on the possibility of secession.

In order to provide the parties an incentive to accept this deal, the strategy also argued for placing American military power (preferably alongside allied power, but if necessary alone) in the service of the diplomatic effort. In presenting the parties with the outlines of a possible diplomatic deal, the Unites States would make clear what price each side would have to pay if negotiations failed. If the Pale Serbs rejected an agreement, then the United States would, in the aftermath of UNPROFOR’s withdrawal, insist on lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, provide arms and training to federation forces, and conduct air strikes for a transition period in order to enable the federation to take control of and defend the 51 percent of Bosnia’s territory that it was allocated under the peace plan. Conversely, if the Muslims rejected an agreement, the United States would adopt a policy of “lift and leave”—lifting the arms embargo but otherwise leaving the federation to its own devices.

The Road to Dayton
Despite considerable opposition to the endgame strategy from the State Department (with Secretary of State Warren Christopher worrying that neither Congress nor the allies would accept the military track) and the Pentagon (where many officials believed that Bosnia’s partition would prove the only viable solution), the president decided in early August to support the NSC’s position. He sent his national security adviser to persuade key European allies as well as Moscow that the new U.S. strategy was their best bet to resolve the Bosnian imbroglio. The president told Lake to make clear to the allies that he was committed to this course of action—including the military track—even if the United States was forced to implement it on its own.

Lake’s message was well received in allied capitals. For the first time, the United States had demonstrated leadership on this issue, and while many had their doubts about the wisdom of the military track, all supported the strategy in its totality as the last best hope to bring the war in Bosnia to an end.

Lake’s successful meetings in Europe laid the foundation for Richard Holbrooke’s subsequent efforts to forge a peace agreement. In this, Holbrooke succeeded brilliantly. Aided by a very successful Croatian-Bosnian offensive (which reversed Serb territorial gains from the 70 percent Pale had held since 1992 to less than 50 percent within a matter of weeks) and a prolonged NATO bombing campaign that followed the Serb shelling of the Sarajevo marketplace in late August, the U.S. negotiating team skillfully exploited the changing military balance of power to conclude the Dayton Peace Accords on November 21. By the end of 1995, U.S. leadership had transformed Bosnia into a country at relative peace—a peace enforced by 60,000 U.S. and NATO forces. (Remarkably, the problem that had stymied NATO decision-makers for so long—the vulnerability of UNPROFOR troops—was resolved with relative ease. In December 1995, when implementation of Dayton began, most of the UNPROFOR troops changed helmets, and were instantly transformed into IFOR [Implementation Force] soldiers. Those who didn’t departed Bosnia unopposed with NATO’s assistance.)

Lessons for Kosovo?
When the crisis in the Serb province of Kosovo erupted in early 1998, senior U.S. officials from Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke on down looked to the success in Bosnia for lessons on how to deal with this new problem. Arguing that the mistakes of Bosnia would not be repeated, they called for an early response by the international community to the latest atrocities in the Balkans, vigorous U.S. leadership from the get-go, and a credible threat to back up diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Each of these were important elements in finally helping to resolve the Bosnian conundrum in the summer of 1995.

But as the case of Kosovo demonstrated, they were not sufficient. For apart from concerted U.S. leadership and linking force and diplomacy in mutually supportive ways, success in Bosnia required a clear sense of how the conflict would have to be resolved as well as a willingness to impose this vision on the parties. The endgame strategy provided the vision; Holbrooke’s diplomatic efforts produced an agreement based on that strategy.

Here is where Kosovo differs from Bosnia. While U.S. leadership and the threat of significant force have marked international efforts to resolve this conflict, there has been no clear vision of how the conflict could be ended nor any willingness to impose that vision if necessary. For months, U.S. diplomats have sought to develop an interim agreement for the province’s future status, one that would grant substantial autonomy to Kosovo but would postpone a decision on its final status for three years. In essence, this kicks the fundamental issue of Kosovo’s possible independence down the road.

Moreover, Washington has given no indication that it is willing to impose its preferred solution nor that it would ensure that any agreement that might emerge from negotiations would be implemented by deploying the necessary NATO firepower on the ground. Without a clear plan for Kosovo’s future status and a visible willingness to make it stick, policy toward Kosovo is likely to be little more than the muddling-through approach that characterized America’s Bosnia policy in its least effective period.