bosnia report
No. 14 February - March 1996
Promise them Anything
by Dr Paul Williams

The 164 pages of the Dayton Peace Accords set forth numerous commitments by the parties. Notably absent, however, are additional commitments made by the United States and Europe to coax the parties into signing. These official but unwritten commitments are in many cases as important to a workable peace in Bosnia as those in the agreement.

One may ask, then, why these commitments remain unwritten. One conceivable answer is that the United States and its NATO partners were simply dishonest with the parties and never intended to fulfil their promises. But this is surely not the case. One must assume that the politics of the peace talks and the complexities of intra-NATO relationships were not conducive to putting these commitments into writing.

The primary oral commitment was a promise made by the senior Americans at the talks - the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and a three-star general - that the United States would ensure the immediate lifting to the UN arms embargo on Bosnia and would arm and train Bosnian government forces to a level of defensive parity with all Serbian forces operating on Bosnia.

When members of the Bosnian delegation questioned the willingness of the NATO partners to permit such a US operation, they were told that Washington had bluntly informed the British and French of the plan, which would proceed with or without their consent, and that the arm-and-train programme was considered essential to NATO's exit strategy from Bosnia.

One and a half weeks into the peace talks the Bosnian delegation sought to enshrine these assurances in a Memorandum of Understanding. To its surprise, the United States balked. The Americans' unwillingness to sign on the dotted line should have given the Bosnians pause, but the US delegation insisted that political imperatives required leaving the assurances unwritten.

The nature of these political imperatives became clearer as the US negotiating team began to couch its commitment to arm and train Bosnian government forces in terms of 'ensuring that such arming and training would happen' and demanding that the Bosnian government agree to regional arms control.

When pushed to explain why they were hedging the commitment to arm and train, the Americans asserted that their NATÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ`O allies would support an arm-and-train programme only if it were coupled with a regional arms-control agreement. The US delegation also raised 'serious doubts' as to the willingness of Congress to support arm-and-train, as well as concern over pre-empting a congressional prerogative.

One might wonder at this point what became of the flash of American leadership in NATO and the US promise to overrule allies' objections to the arm-and-train programme. One must also wonder where the US delegation was getting its advice on the congressional mood, given that Congress on three separate occasions had called for the lifting of the arms embargo and already had allocated over $250 million for the immediate provision of weapons to the Bosnian government.

In case Congress had not made its view sufficiently clear, Senate majority leader Robert Dole issued a statement calling for inclusion in the peace agreement of a clear written commitment to arm and train the Bosnians.

On the penultimate day of the negotiations, the Bosnian delegation was presented with yet another European invention in the form of a UN resolution seeking to life the arms embargo as promised, but only in phases - which would prevent the Bosnian government from obtaining weapons necessary for its self-defence until the NATO implementation force had begun to withdraw.

By the end of the Dayton peace talks, the unambiguous promise of the United States to arm and train the Bosnian government had been transformed into a series of commitments giving the Europeans the regional arms-control regime and phased lifting of the arms embargo that they wanted, while guaranteeing the Serbian side a balance of military forces substantially in its favour.

These commitments, however, do not enable the United States to fulfil an important piece of its military exit strategy; moreover, they fail to provide any realistic expectation that the Bosnians will have the means of defending their fledgling democratic state when NATO withdraws in time for the 1996 US presidential election.

The Bosnian government has shown flexibility by agreeing to an arms regime that allows Serbia two-and-a-half times more weaponry than Bosnia with one third even of the Bosnian amount being allocated to the Republika Srpska (the so-called 'Serb entity' within Bosnia; and by agreeing to a phased lifting of the arms embargo, even though this will deny the Bosnians the timely opportunity to acquire weapons for their own defence. Now the United States must keep its promises.

If the United States fails to fulfil its commitment to arm and train Bosnian government forces, one must doubt whether it will honour its other unwritten promises. The most important of these are: the commitment to respond to Serbian aggression with overwhelming and disproportionate force; the commitment that NATO will patrol vigorously throughout the territory of the Republika Srpska; the commitment that NATO will react immediately to potential threats of ethnic cleansing and to threats against returning refugees within its area of operations; and the commitment not to transform the NATO implementation troops into another hapless peacekeeping force by adopting the UN's pacifist mentality.

Paul R. Williams, executive director of the Public International Law and Policy Group, served in the Bosnian delegation to the Dayton peace talks. This article was published in The Weekly Standard on 18 December 1995.


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