Foreign Policy Flashpoints: The Middle East, Bosnia, Korea

Last January’s heralded Israeli-Palestinian agreement to implement the long-delayed Israeli withdrawal from Hebron and to set dates for full implementation of the Oslo accords was a critical step toward Middle East peace. It stopped the backward movement in the peace process that began with the election last May of the Likud party’s Benyamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, and it laid the ground for an essential working relationship between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. But the post-election setback to the peace process has been so profound that the agreement by itself will be unlikely to reverse deep regional suspicions. And because regional confidence in the process has been significantly undermined, the role of the United States will be more critical than it has been in recent years.

The change in regional attitudes since the Israeli elections has been consequential not only for the Arab-Israeli peace process but also for U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. The Netanyahu government’s pursuit of ambitious settlement policies in the West Bank and its footdragging in implementing the Oslo accords, problematic enough themselves, are symptoms of a bigger crisis in the region that has been only partly ameliorated by the Hebron withdrawal: a paradigmatic shift in the outlook in the Arab world, not only on the Palestinian-Israeli front, but regionwide.

A Psychology of Peace

Washington’s biggest accomplishment in the Middle East since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 has been to persuade Arab and Israeli moderates that they have more interests in common with each other than with extremists on their own sides–and that the peace process is really irreversible. In essence, the United States was able to get regional leaders to compete to see who could jump on the winning bandwagon first. The psychology of peace prevailed even as the process itself confronted crises. Although neither the Arabs nor the Israelis were happy with the peace that was unfolding, both sides, having made the leap of reconciliation, were headed into the final outcome. Then, following the Israeli election, that paradigm all but collapsed, giving way to growing perceptions of inevitable conflict and a psychology of zero-sum interests between Israel and the Arab states.

At the core of this paradigmatic shift was an assessment of the prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli deal that is viewed as the cornerstone of broader Arab-Israeli peace. The importance of the psychological outlook for regional peace is evident in the way the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians moved steadily forward before the Israeli elections despite serious obstacles. Israelis and Palestinians continued to experience ugly terrorism, and the Palestinian situation on the ground actually deteriorated. The economy dropped by 30 percent, unemployment rose, mobility was further restricted. The belief of both sides that the process was working was driven by the leap of faith by the Labor government and the PLO that they would ultimately have a peace based on Palestinian independence, possibly a demilitarized Palestinian state, consistent with Israeli security needs–with both sides knowing all the while that the issues separating them are tough and will take long to negotiate.

The new psychology that emerged following last May’s Israeli elections assumed that the Israeli government was no longer part of that deal. U.S. mediators had spent the years since the Oslo accords trying to persuade Arabs, especially Syrians, of the substantive differences in Israel between moderates and extremists, between the Labor and Likud parties. Many in the Arab world had believed that the only foreign policy differences between the two parties were tactical. It took a great deal of diplomacy–and the 1995 assassination of Israel’s Labor prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a peace opponent–to persuade many Arabs that the differences within Israel are indeed serious and that the Palestinians would be better off making a deal with Israel’s Labor leaders. Likewise, many Israelis had come to believe that serious differences separate Arab moderates from extremists. But that very success was predicated on identifying the Likud party, and its leader, Netanyahu, as being the obstacles to that peace. And just as this psychological transformation was completed, the election put Netanyahu at the head of Israel’s government. It was not an easy matter to persuade Arabs that the new leader could reach out for peace with the Arabs the way that Richard Nixon had done for the United States with China. Netanyahu himself did not help matters, for his pronouncements challenging the principle of exchanging territories for peace and his settlement policies coincided well with the deeply entrenched Arab interpretation of his goals.

Spreading Circles of Doubt

The near-collapse of the paradigm of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors was not confined to the Palestinian-Israeli front. It extended to Israel’s relations with other Arab states and even to the Persian Gulf, where the United States has significant material interests. On the Syrian front, the wide gap between the stated positions of Syria and Israel on the extent, or even the principle, of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights reduces the chance of an agreement in the next four years. In Jordan and Egypt, the countries that have peace treaties with Israel, the Palestinian-Israeli agreement of 1993 had been used as a fig leaf to further normalize relations. The ascendance of Netanyahu made it difficult for both governments to continue moving in that direction, especially in the face of mounting internal opposition. The Hebron withdrawal has not significantly repaired the damage to elite and popular perceptions of the prospects for peace in both countries.

The Persian Gulf region has also been negatively affected in important ways. In the past five years, the United States has been successfully separating Persian Gulf issues and the Arab-Israeli issues. In particular, Washington has managed to keep the slowness of the Arab-Israeli peace process from affecting important American strategies in the Gulf, including policy toward Iran and Iraq, and deployment of American forces in the region. While Syria, Egypt, and the Palestinians had serious reservations about some aspects of U.S. policy in the Gulf, the priority they placed on achieving Arab-Israeli agreements, and the indispensable role that the United States was seen to play in this regard, muted their reservations. Arabs of the Persian Gulf managed to take Israel out of their primary calculations of interest. The paradigmatic shift in the region, however, has revived old attitudes that see an Israeli strategy that seeks to divide and weaken the Arab world. Conspiracy theories involving Israel are advanced to explain the region’s ills, including the trouble in northern Iraq and the survival of Saddam Hussein. This psychological outlook will make the implementation of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf more difficult at a time when the honeymoon that the United States has experienced since 1991 in the Persian Gulf is coming to an end because of regional changes independent of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Local troubles ranging from domestic opposition to the U.S. military presence to conflicts with Iran and Iraq could become increasingly difficult for Washington to address because of revived links to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The U.S. Role

What role can the Clinton administration play under these trying new circumstances? Let me say first what it must not do. Washington cannot afford to disengage either from the Persian Gulf or from the Arab-Israeli peace process. Material interests aside, the next suicide bombing or serious violence of any kind in the Middle East, especially against U.S. forces, will certainly propel domestic American pressure to intervene. The Persian Gulf region remains strategically important to the United States. American forces remain there and are likely to stay for some time to come. U.S. policies toward Iran and Iraq cannot simply be abandoned without a better alternative. Not least, they are consequential for U.S. relations with Europe, Japan, China, and Russia. On the Arab-Israeli front, the United States cannot afford to backtrack in its commitment, especially given the regional loss of confidence in the Arab-Israeli peace process. At the very least, the parties must have faith in the United States. To that end, Washington must lay out its positions clearly and repeat them as often as opportunities allow, especially its steadfast commitment to implementing existing agreements. In this important sense, the role of the United States in the Arab-Israeli negotiations has become more important than it was before the Israeli elections.

As for what the administration can do, the focus must first and foremost be on the Palestinian-Israeli track. The physical entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians and the potentially explosive situation in the Palestinian territories make this track urgent. Certainly, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have little choice but to proceed with the peace process, but it is doubtful that they can control the opposition or the public in an environment of despair. In addition, for most Arabs the Palestinian issue remains the ultimate psychological benchmark to measure the prospects of broader peace in the region. Syrian President Hafez Assad is no exception. Though Assad is no admirer of Arafat, his obsession with his own legacy means that he sees Arafat’s fate to mirror his own. The Hebron agreements, despite their shortcomings, have been important, not only in stopping the backward movement in the peace process, but also in reviving in Palestinian minds the hope of a Palestinian state, even if its sovereignty would be limited. The trial balloons put out by Netanyahu’s aids contemplating something close to a Palestinian state in the final settlement was almost as important as the agreements themselves. But if there is a lesson to be learned from the past three years, it is that diplomatic complacency, the celebration of every little agreement as if it makes peace a certainty, is a prescription for disaster. Nearly all the tough issues separating Israelis and Palestinians lie ahead.

On the Syrian-Israeli front, the gap may be too wide to achieve an agreement any time soon, but it is important to revive diplomatic momentum to prevent unintended escalation, especially in Lebanon, where Israel remains painfully entangled. Although Syria and Israel are two powerful states who will ultimately make their own deals, the diplomatic role of the United States remains indispensable in an environment of deep suspicion.

In the Persian Gulf, Washington faces serious challenges to its policy toward Iran and Iraq, largely because of the weakening international coalition on these issues. The policies will need immediate and thorough examination, but above all, the Clinton administration will need to initiate a serious dialogue with the European allies, with Japan, and with the Gulf allies on a coherent policy toward Iran and Iraq and on securing the supply of oil in general. It is remarkable that despite the prevalent assumption that the Persian Gulf region today is a crucial one for the Western allies and that Gulf oil is one of their most important interests, there is no serious discussion between the United States and its allies on how best to address this interest. Initiating such a dialogue must be the number one priority in shaping U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf.


by Susan Woodward

American-led multinational intervention to bring peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a resounding success in 1996. Although Bosnia is more divided now into three ethnically homogeneous ministates than it was a year ago, the war has stopped. Elections in September legitimated the parties of war, but the brutality of ethnic cleansing, the siege of Sarajevo, and the atrocities are gone from nightly television. NATO has regained its credibility, acquired a new lease on life, and committed a new deployment of 31,000 troops, called SFOR (for Stabilization Force), for another 18 months to stabilize the gains of its predecessor, IFOR. Quarrels within the alliance over lagging civilian implementation have subsided in a new commitment to improve coordination and attention to the tasks of building common political institutions and economic reconstruction.

Nevertheless, this success could all unravel. This will be the decisive year for Bosnia. The peace process has entered the difficult phase–the civilian tasks of peacebuilding and nationbuilding that can take place only after a separation of forces and cantonment of weapons succeeds. For the three warring (newly elected) parties, the General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP) signed at Dayton and Paris is only a cease-fire. They do not accept the accord as definitive politically, seeing it only as an insecure stepping-stone. Each is still fighting the war for statehood; only their means of securing territory and national survival have changed.

The international agenda for 1997 is being driven by the primary countries of asylum, above all Germany, who insist that Bosnian refugees now go home. Hundreds of thousands of refugees must be resettled, their right and that of displaced persons in Bosnia to return to their prewar homes assured, and the municipal elections postponed last September held. But for the three Bosnian parties, where people live decides who wins elections and therefore who controls a territory–the issue that remains insecure in the agreement. The combination of refugee return, reversing ethnic cleansing, and elections is explosive, for the parties intend it to decide the real political fate of Bosnia.

Could Success Unravel?

Could the success of 1996 become failure in 1997? The year will be critical for U.S. foreign policy and its new makers. As civilian tasks take center stage, an American military unused to peacekeeping roles and vehement about remaining operationally autonomous will be put in an unfamiliar servicing role. Conflict between military and civilian authorities will be difficult to avoid when the military are asked to get more involved in tasks that could cause casualties. The constant dilemma of peace operations between diplomatic commitments made in the peace process and domestic commitments to voters to protect the troops–the ever present issue of bodybags–will rebound onto politicians, however. Will they fulfill their commitments to the parties made at Dayton and respond to demands from domestic constituents that justice be done, or will they protect the soldiers and risk growing disappointment with the troops and a new round of threats to NATO’s credibility? The rhetoric–“what are 31,000 soldiers of the most sophisticated military machine in the world worth if they are not willing to arrest indicted war criminals, guarantee freedom of movement, or ensure the right of people to return to their prewar homes?”–cares little about the technicalities of mandates and the legalities of international intervention.

While ways around this conflict are being sought, such as a special constabulary to arrest indictees, it will be hard to avoid the larger issue of 1997. The political contradictions in the Dayton accord will become an obstacle to further progress and force the United States to make difficult choices on the future of Bosnia which it would prefer to avoid. This will also revive disagreements with its European allies about political outcome and peace strategy at the same time as they are being told to assume full military responsibility for Bosnia after June 1998.

The conditions for facing these new tasks and conflicts will not be favorable. Governments seconded their best people for the first year of implementing the Dayton accord. Their contracts have run out, they will inevitably be replaced by a B-team, and a major transition in the Office of the High Representative responsible for coordinating all efforts will occur in March or April. The number of troops has been almost halved, and six-month rotations will be allowed. All these transitions in personnel will cause delays.

In addition, the region is far more unstable. President Tudjman of Croatia, one of the three signatories of the GFAP, has contracted inoperable stomach cancer. He has already moved toward a more intransigent nationalism with an eye, apparently, to his final legacy, while the right wing in his party has become more assertive in the succession struggle. The consequences for Bosnian Croat cooperation in their federation with Bosnian Muslims (Bosniacs) are not auspicious. In Serbia, mass demonstrations since mid-November have weakened seriously the government of the second GFAP signatory, President Slobodan Milosević. Milosević will be even more focused on his domestic troubles, and the instability could spread to the Kosovo region, where ethnic Albanians remain intent on independence. An important element of the opposition to Milosević, in addition, is sympathy for the Bosnian Serbs and their leaders in Pale.

The Year Ahead

The flashpoints for U.S. foreign policy toward Bosnia in 1997 are many. In February, requests for supplemental funding for the SFOR deployment will provide an opening for critics in Congress, led by Representative Kasich (R-Ohio), who feel betrayed by President Clinton’s initial promise to withdraw U.S. troops by last December. Directing their discontent at the new deployment, they will open a difficult discussion on the absence of an exit strategy from Bosnia and could impose conditions of total withdrawal earlier than the currently planned June of next year. In July, a NATO summit is scheduled in Madrid to address three fundamental issues: enlargement, relations with Russia, and command and control arrangements for out-of-area deployments like Bosnia (the Combined Joint Task Force [CJTF] without U.S. participation). The last two NATO summits have nearly been hijacked by the Bosnian conflict. The intimate links between the Madrid agenda and Bosnia–participation of NATO aspirants in IFOR and SFOR, possible hand-over to a European CJTF after SFOR, and growing instability in NATO’s southern flank–make it impossible to separate the two in 1997. And as the end of the year approaches and the North Atlantic Council and the Pentagon look to reduce their deployment in Bosnia to a Deterrence Force (DFOR) one-third the size, the difficult political accounting of where Bosnia is going will have to be made.

Finally, in Bosnia itself, the flashpoints begin with decisions in February. The status of Brvcko, a town in northeast Bosnia whose strategic location is so decisive for the fate of Bosnia that Dayton negotiators could not resolve it, was to be decided by international arbitration on February 15. Already delayed from December 15, American arbitrator Robert Owen chose to delay it again. Flooded with Serbs displaced by the transfer of Sarajevo suburbs from Serb to federal control and troops mobilized in preparation for war, Brvcko is a casus belli for Serbs. Without it, the two halves of their republic are separated, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs flee the western half. But President Izetbegović has also made Bosniac control of Brvcko a test of American commitment to them. He triggered the new delay and Owen’s decision to place the area under special administration for a year with an American head, by threatening to resign if it was not awarded to the federation. The intensified fight in 1997 for control over Brvcko, with settlers, troops, voters, and returning refugees, will severely strain the much reduced SFOR troops in the area (in the American division). The first election of an election season, on April 13, will make this worse. Municipal elections in neighboring Croatia are expected to be the trigger for Serbs in the area currently under United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia to flood southward to Brvcko before UN troops leave on July 15 and an exodus of displacement of Bosnian Croats and Muslims.

The Coming Refugee Crisis

This flood of refugees could inaugurate a long hot spring and summer. The German pressure to send more than 300,000 refugees home, let alone pressure on the more than 500,000 scattered elsewhere, has been resisted until now. Fewer returned in 1996 than were newly displaced. German state governments burdened by the costs and political backlash cannot be resisted any longer. German troops are now participating in SFOR, in combat roles for the first time, overturning 50 years of post-Nazi restrictions, and in high positions in the SFOR command structure where national pressure can be applied. The Bosniac leadership will insist more emphatically on the right of displaced persons and especially returning refugees to return to the homes from which they were expelled–villages and towns where they are still not welcome. In Republika Srpska, particularly, Serbs fear losing control of territory if Muslims return in large numbers, but Bosnian Muslims are no more welcome in Croat-majority towns, despite their federation alliance.

In addition to pressing their demand for justice, the Sarajevo leadership will intensify the use of refugee and displaced person returns, as they began in summer 1996, as military operations aimed at retaking territory in strategic parts of the Serb Republic. The ultimate goal is to extend Bosniac control up to the northern and eastern borders of the country in place of Serbs. These military operations have already created enormous headaches for IFOR and will create more trouble for a smaller SFOR. At the same time, the military’s insistence that conflicts over resettlement are an internal security matter–a task for local and international police that is not in IFOR/SFOR’s mandate–provokes criticism while it does little to prevent them from being drawn in when local confrontations become armed hostilities in the zone of separation or between long-arm-bearing police. All three communities–Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs–will resist the return to their local communities of people who are not their “own,” thereby delaying over and over by local crises the goal of building common institutions, multiethnic cooperation, and reintegration so that the international forces can depart. The idea of one Bosnia will be continually tested.

The political significance and explosive potential of refugee returns, however, will be magnified by the other event of the coming summer: municipal elections. Elections are the means by which the parties are now waging the war. Electoral victories for the three nationalist parties is their way to retain control over territory, consolidate control over the territory and people they were handed at Dayton, and for the Bosniac community to recapture (they would say “liberate”) territory from the Serbs. Municipal elections were postponed last September because of undue irregularities in the voting lists and challenges to the use of the registration form allowing Bosnians to vote where they intend to live. This form of personalized gerrymandering, a favorite of the Pale Serbs but used by all three parties, places a premium on choice of residence; its disavowal will not eliminate the efforts of Bosnian Croats to do literal gerrymandering of communities–redrawing municipal borders to create separate communities where Croats and Muslims are currently mixed. The nightmare for SFOR, however, lies in the regional context of these local elections: their possible conjunction with refugees expelled from northern Europe about the time of Bosnian elections, between July and September, from a Croatia preparing also for presidential elections before September, and from a Serbia in the throes of political crisis and obliged to hold presidential elections before December. A major goal of the Dayton accord was to separate the fate of Bosnia from its neighbors–former republics of the disintegrating Yugoslavia and a Balkan peninsula still held at a distance by western European powers. Elections scheduled in 1997 in Croatia, Serbia, and Albania, joined by early elections in Bulgaria and growing militant activity in Kosovo, suggest that goal is fleeting, too.

Many other issues face the peace process in Bosnia during 1997. Under the “train and equip” program for a federation army, new weapons and ammunition are flowing into the country, with unknown consequences for the process of refugee return. Disagreements between the United States and some of its allies over U.S. commitment to the Bosniac leadership of Alija Izetbegović and continuing discrimination against Republika Srpska in economic, military, and political matters are coming to a head. On the grounds that a year of grace to the Sarajevo leadership was sufficient and that these policies are dividing Bosnia more, the allies now insist it is time to enforce the peace accord equally on all three parties. Pressure will increase all around to arrest indicted war criminals and do more to support The Hague tribunal now that national elections have been held.

Another Missed Opportunity?

Failure to act on the lessons learned from the peace implementation process in 1996 and on the choices needed in 1997 would be another in a long series of tragic missed opportunities in Bosnia. This one could not be blamed on Europeans. Policy toward Bosnia and the Balkans has not changed since 1991, but events in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, as elsewhere in the region, do not permit more of the same. A comprehensive strategy that includes all areas of the former country, their place in Europe, and greater coherence in the positions of the transatlantic allies will have to emerge if the crisis and an international presence are to end. As for Bosnia, the international rhetoric of cooperation but the reality of treating Bosnian parties as if they are hostile and reinforcing elements of their past hostility must also change toward a policy that is based on and reinforces realistic possibilities for cooperation.

Success in Bosnia in 1996 is not yet self-sustaining. U.S. foreign policy choices in Bosnia cannot be isolated from the major issues of national interest. Great power relations will be tested. The use of military power will be challenged. Relations with the Middle East may even be negatively affected if the Bosniac cause looks grim. And in all three aspects, President Clinton will have a lot of explaining to do to the American people.


by William Gleysteen (served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 1978-81)

North Korea is a peculiar, very isolated society. It is still a communist state. It’s a very elitist state, organized, in terms of loyalties, like a tribe. It is in terrible economic condition–acknowledged to be so, but even worse than publicly acknowledged. Its industrial policies have run into the ground. It has had a diminishing GDP for six years. It has suffered bad harvests and floods. However, it is surviving, and its survival techniques are reminiscent of a country at war. I don’t know how long North Korean society can go on in such circumstances, but there is certainly a limit within the foreseeable future. North Korea also has a highly developed skill, or habit, of playing chicken very successfully. It runs very great risks, the greatest one being the Korean War. Time and again it has tried to use opportunities to push people up to the brink, and it’s very important to keep this tactic in mind.

The Korean peninsula was a flashpoint even before the Korean War. The nature of the danger, however, has changed a great deal. Up until around 10 years ago the real danger in North Korea was its military strength, which its society had sacrificed so much to build up. North Korea had powerful allies–the Soviet Union and China–that didn’t really approve of its risk taking, but nevertheless provided some comfort. The North posed a massive threat to South Korea. Seoul was only a few miles from the demilitarized zone. The danger of the South being overrun very quickly was very great. In the last 20 years or so, however, the military balance between North Korea and South Korea has gradually been reversed. The combination of South Korean and American forces there today is clearly superior to those of North Korea. But the new danger militarily is that a society that is cornered can perhaps be even more irrational and more dangerous than one that enjoys superiority. This is the situation we face. This is why it is a flashpoint.

Now how do we deal with this? Both South Korea and the United States have a common interest in the security, stability, and prosperity of Korea and the region around it. The most immediately important thing is that nothing be done to undermine the military strength that South Korea enjoys today.

Looking ahead to the period of possible reunification of the two Koreas, some adjustments at least in the composition of U.S. forces in Korea may be possible and sensible, but any significant change in those forces today would be dangerous, particularly in view of North Korea’s nuclear developments. We must also do everything we can to avoid the total collapse of the North. If that regime collapses, the resulting chaos will impose an enormous economic burden on South Korea. There would also be a military problem if South Korea tried to fill the vacuum, moving forces near its Chinese border and making China uncomfortable. And in political terms it would create a great many problems. To put it brutally, the United States and South Korea would benefit far more from this society lingering on and gradually moderating. We may not have this choice, and we must, of course, prepare for the contingency of collapse.

In my opinion, the first Clinton administration started off on the wrong foot and got itself into a crisis in part of its own making over the nuclear issue. Toward the end it reached the best compromise that could be devised–namely, the framework agreement, which was an unabashed bargain with North Korea to have them stall their nuclear military activities in return for two light-water reactors provided by the United States and South Korea. That is the right approach for the long run–measures that engage North Korea in the outer world, that bring home the priorities of resource allocation and rub in the cost of past policies, that buy time for the adjustment necessary between the two confronting societies, north and south. Despite a great deal of discomfort in this country over the framework agreement, it has been generally accepted by both parties in Congress and by the American people.

But in South Korea, the issue is much more difficult. It is complicated by the domestic politics of South Korea, by the line of demarcation so close to Seoul, and by provocative North Korean behavior, such as the grounding of the spy submarine off the cost of South Korea last September. It is extremely hard for a South Korean politician to say, “Yeah, we should take a tough line toward North Korea, but we must also build the light-water reactors and encourage inter-Korean trade and investment. We should keep that offer out there all the time.” In fact, though it is hard to get this point across to South Korea, it is good for them, and for other powers, to deal with North Korea, to try pushing it open. The tension between Washington and Seoul over this issue is real but manageable. South Korea is concerned that the United States will make some important sacrifice in its relations with South Korea to try to ease relations with North Korea. But while we should proceed in easing relations with the North, we should never do so at the expense of a South Korean relationship that is far more important to us. There is a tension, but it need not be a conflict. I think we can manage it, and I believe that the Clinton administration in the past few months has managed it quite well.