Bosnia and Kosovo: Lessons for U.S. Policy

Jul 22, 1999

Speech by Senator Joseph Biden

Reflecting on the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, William Butler Yeats wrote that "a terrible beauty" had been born. To Yeats a bloody victory had been achieved, creating a new world that offered the Irish people the chance to change their lives.

I believe that Central and Eastern Europe in 1999 exhibits the same kind of fundamental break with the past and similarly offers the people of the region new opportunities.

What a change in the last ten years! Communism has collapsed in most of Europe. NATO now numbers nineteen members, including three Central European states. The Federal Yugoslavia of Slobodan Milosevic lies in shambles, and his rule is increasingly in jeopardy. Bosnia and Kosovo have been freed from Belgrade, but, as was the case in Yeats Ireland, the people are often using their freedom to kill each other.

Today, in four parts, I would like to suggest some lessons we can learn from our decade of involvement with the former Yugoslavia:

1. I will discuss tactical lessons learned from the conduct of the recent air campaign against Yugoslavia.
2. Despite obvious differences in the two cases, I will attempt to use our experience in Bosnia with the implementation of the Dayton Accords as a guide for what to do --and what not to do --in restoring civilian government in Kosovo.
3. I will look at larger strategic lessons learned, including how the United States Government might deal with future crises in a more systematic way.
4. Finally, I will outline my vision of long-term regional economic and security development for Southeastern Europe.

The air campaign against Yugoslavia was the first war waged by democracies in Europe in the information age. But it probably won't be the last --and it certainly won't be the last case in which we contemplate using force. I would submit that the U.S. must adjust to this changed world by developing new policies, often with new modes of operation.

We Did the Right Thing, and We Won

Let us look at what happened. To spare you any suspense, I think we did the right thing in our seventy-eight day air campaign, and we succeeded. The war against Milosevic was of great consequence. If NATO had not acted, the results, I believe, would have been grave.

The war might well have spread, with NATO allies Turkey and Greece being drawn in on opposite sides.

Milosevic would have been able totally to destabilize neighboring countries, as he attempted through his mass expulsion of Kosovars to Albania and Macedonia. Moreover, refugee flows would have severely strained Western Europe.

There would also have been a demonstration effect: other potential demagogic, racist strongmen in Europe would have taken the lesson that their ilk could massacre and ethnically cleanse with impunity.

There were, to be sure, real risks in countering Milosevic militarily, but none of the big worries of March 1999 occurred.

First of all, NATO kept together.

Second, the war did not spread.

Third, contrary to expectations, the Republika Srpska in Bosnia did not blow up; in fact, its government has become more cooperative in Dayton implementation.

Fourth, Montenegro's democratic government, under severe threat from Milosevic, has not been overthrown, although it surely is in need of increased Western support.

Finally, U.S. prestige and influence in the Balkans has not suffered as a result of the air campaign; it has been enhanced.

I recall the immediate effects of the air campaign not in order to rest on our laurels. These achievements come at the end of a decade of involvement in Yugoslavia in which the record is decidedly mixed. It is well worth our while to examine the period, focusing on Bosnia and Kosovo, in order to draw policy lessons for the future.

The U.S. involvement in Yugoslavia in the 1990's was a qualitatively new experience. Hence, it is not surprising that we made a lot of mistakes; many of them were predictable. Underlying our Yugoslav policy, with regard both to Bosnia and Kosovo, was a commitment to maintain unity within NATO. This underpinning was, I believe, in most cases an absolutely correct ordering of U.S. national priorities. Striking a balance between alliance membership and doing the right thing was, and remains, extremely difficult.

At the risk of opening myself up to the charge of Yankee boastfulness, I believe that both the air war against Yugoslavia could have been handled, and the looming civilian reconstruction in Kosovo could be handled, more efficiently by the United States alone, rather than by an international coalition.

Realistically, though, going it alone would be totally impossible to sell politically, either to the American people or to Congress. Moreover, European involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo is an important part of the continent's political maturation.

The European Union's lead-role in the Southeast Europe Stability Pact, which I will discuss later, is the most obvious signal that this process, at long last, is moving ahead.

To come clean, however, I freely admit that there have been times when I personally have given precedence to the need for American unilateralism over NATO solidarity, such as when I called for a policy of lift and strike in a Senate speech way back in September 1992. I was pretty lonely then, and it took three years and nearly a quarter-million dead in Bosnia before we finally adopted that policy.

But this is not the time either to gloat or to rationalize. Rather, we should, as responsibly as possible, review our mistakes in order to formulate policies to bring stability to the Balkans.

Tactical Lessons of the Air Campaign

As promised, let me begin by looking at tactical lessons we should learn from the recent air war.

First, we should maintain unity of command in crisis management. In the twelve months prior to the beginning of the air campaign, NATO was temporarily replaced on several occasions by the Contact Group, which includes Russia.

This switch in the command of crisis management in effect shifted policy because Russia did not have the same goals as NATO. Milosevic, of course, was well aware of this fact and, therefore, was encouraged to believe that he could stonewall on a possible settlement.

Second, we should not have ruled out the use of ground forces even before the outset of the campaign. Preserving uncertainty is a key element of crisis management and is important enough to maintain, even at the risk of dividing the alliance. In fact, once the war had begun I privately urged the President to begin a visible deployment of troops to keep Milosevic guessing.

That is why Senator McCain and I introduced a resolution in April 1999 authorizing the President to use all necessary force and other means in concert with U.S. allies to achieve goals in Yugoslavia. White House lobbied against it, allegedly out of fear it would lose an up-or-down vote. It was tabled by a vote of seventy-eight to twenty-two.

Nonetheless, when we finally began to move toward deployment of ground forces late in the campaign, it contributed to changing Milosevic's mind about the wisdom of trying to hold out.

Third, NATO needs to alter its war-time decision making apparatus. There should be no more North Atlantic Council town meetings of the early weeks of the war when unanimity was required for targeting. The structure proved to be unwieldy and was altered in the middle of the war. This was one of the predictable examples of learning by doing in a new situation. The new process had only the major NATO allies able to veto targets. The result was hitting television towers, police headquarters, and dual-use facilities like the electrical power grid -- whose destruction contributed decisively to the Serbian capitulation.

In the future NATO should decide upon a political-military course, set the strategic parameters, and then leave daily implementation to the alliance's generals and admirals.

Fourth, in future conflicts NATO must improve its internal communication channels so that the media are not given premature denials of errant bombing or missile attacks. Above all, the alliance must repeatedly underscore the fundamental difference between premeditated aggression, massacres, and war crimes on one side, and occasional, regrettable mistakes committed in morally justified resistance to crimes, on the other.

Fifth, NATO should also never announce positive military moves too early. The textbook case for this was the Apache helicopters, initially touted by many as a silver bullet but then never employed in combat, to the embarrassment of the United States Army.

And sixth, the United Nations must have absolutely no command involvement in any NATO-led military operation, beginning with KFOR. We must never repeat the impossible dual-key structure of UNPROFOR in Bosnia.

In spite of all these ways that we could have improved upon our prosecution of the air war, our forces did a great job. As a result, through the use of military force we have arrived in Kosovo in mid-1999 at roughly the same point we were at, through military action followed by high-profile multilateral diplomacy, in Bosnia at the end of 1995.

Restoring Civilian Government in Kosovo

Despite crucial differences between Bosnia and Kosovo, with which this audience is intimately familiar, I think we can profit from three-and-a-half years' experience in the former in several ways.

Here I think my nearly three decades as a politician help me to cut through some of the haze. We all know that Kosovars, Serbs, Roma, Slavic Muslims, Turks, Frenchmen, Britons, Germans, Americans, and other nationalities have their unique traits and peculiarities. But fundamentally they all want the basics for their families and themselves: security under the rule of law, a job with a living wage, and the absence of discrimination against them because of their race, ethnic background, or religion.

What this means for Kosovo is quite simple. Even while the geopoliticians and development experts are, quite properly, discussing the eventual shape of the Southeast Europe Stability Pact, we have to move as rapidly as possible on the ground in Kosovo to secure the basics I have just described.

Preventing returning Kosovars from killing remaining Serbs, disarming lawless individuals, stopping domestic disputes, getting traffic lights back up and running --all these are essential tasks, for which our marvelous military has not been trained. This is the job for police --in some cases your normal cops, in others European-style, more heavily armed gendarmes.

So, first, we must accelerate the recruitment and deployment by the U.N. of an international police force. The U.N. has had experience in this field, and there is no reason for the lagging that is going on. I pushed early and hard in Bosnia for European gendarmes to take over crowd control, resettlement of minority refugees, and hunting for indicted war criminals. The so-called MSU's or Multinational Specialized Units from Europe and Argentina that have been deployed in Bosnia have done the first task, but not the refugee returns or war criminal hunting. In Kosovo, the international police should be equipped and tasked to do all three.

Second, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, must immediately speed up its program to train local police officers from all the ethnic communities in Kosovo. Again, the OSCE has done this before, and must pick up the pace in Kosovo. The rebuilding of ethnically integrated police forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina has not been a smashing success, but promising strides have been made. If Croats and Muslims who shot at each other in Mostar can now go on joint patrols, as they do, then, I submit, Kosovars and Serbs can do the same in Pristina.

Third, the U.N. must get its act together with regard to creating an interim government in Kosovo. The international community must immediately make funds available to build emergency housing, restore vital services, and fund the salaries of the new, indigenous civil servants. World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn estimated yesterday that this would require $50 million, surely a sum well within our means.

Fourth, a clear division of labor must be worked out among the U.N., OSCE, and the EU (European Union) and close liaison channels immediately established with KFOR. Until now this has not occurred. The not surprising result is that the local population is turning for all advice and permission to the guys with the guns --KFOR.

An important corollary of the division of labor is that bureaucracy and red-tape, especially in the U.N. and EU, must be minimized from the outset, and rigorous oversight mechanisms established. If the U.S. comes across as being overly zealous --in an earlier age one might have said too Prussian --then so be it.

Fifth, although self-determination and political freedom are central to Western involvement in the Balkans, a too hasty carrying out of elections can undermine the achievement of those goals.

In Bosnia more than eighty parties, coalitions, alliances, and independent candidates have run for office --certainly a very democratic picture. But the nationalist parties of the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia --Muslims, Serbs, and Croats --were the first to organize, dominated the campaigns through legal and illegal media tactics, and as a result have captured most of the races.

After the carnage, Kosovo needs a breathing space for civil society to re-emerge. Following this necessary pause, but before elections are scheduled, the international community should take an ironclad hold on the mass media and financial institutions in Kosovo to ensure that campaigns are not only free but also fair.

The sixth and final lesson in civil reconstruction that I would draw also holds true for our military contribution to KFOR. We should not fall into the politically-induced trap the Clinton Administration fell into with IFOR and SFOR in Bosnia of giving a timetable for withdrawal, which from the outset was totally unrealistic. Our only Aexit strategy should be to leave Kosovo when we have fully achieved our goals. The American people must know that we are there for the long haul because it is in our national interest to do so.

Strategic Lessons Learned

Now to the third part of my presentation. Our decade of involvement in Yugoslavia also has yielded longer-term, broader strategic lessons for the future. Above all, it has illustrated that too much of American foreign policy has been reactive. A conceptual framework is sorely needed.

Others have made this same point. The question of priorities in U.S. foreign policy has periodically been examined by private groups. In 1996 a ACommission on America's National Interests dealt in detail with the subject.

More recently, former Secretary of Defense William Perry has discussed it. And writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye grapples with redefining the national interest. Nye, who also served in the Defense Department in the first Clinton Administration, modestly concludes: AThe national interest is too important to leave solely to the geopoliticians. Elected officials must play the key role.

Dean Nye is right on target. I recommend that the President, working with a bipartisan Congressional group, create an inter-agency planning process on U.S. national interests abroad --both geographic and thematic. The result of the task force's study would be to classify American interests in categories like Avital, very important, important, and peripheral.

By my own initial calculus, non-NATO Central and Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, would fall into Avery important geographical interest category, and furthering democracy and preventing genocide would fall into Avery important thematic interest category. Combining these two with the capability, via NATO, to effect the desired outcome created, I believe, a convincing case for military action against Milosevic's genocidal actions, both in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Apparently the Bush Administration, and the Clinton Administration until late 1995, didn't see it that way. After the Clinton Administration came over to this policy, it never adequately described the logic of its decision to the American people.

For most of the 1990's, particularly in the first half of the decade, Congress was left to fill the vacuum. That is a complex, detailed story, which requires more time to relate than we have today. Some of you may wish to pursue this topic in the question-and-answer period.

Suffice it to say that I believe there are two lessons to be learned from this Congressional involvement. First, the internationalists in Congress simply must carry the day against the neo-isolationists. Second, there is a crying need for a Vandenberg-type consensus that Apartisanship ends at the water's edge.

My Vision of the Balkans in 2010

To what end in the Balkans should we utilize these tactical and strategic recommendations? What is my vision of Southeastern Europe in, say, the year 2010?

For the benefit of its inhabitants, and of its neighbors, the Balkans must end the tribal warfare, which flared sporadically for centuries and became the dominant theme as new nation-states won their freedom from the slowly crumbling Ottoman Empire throughout the nineteenth century.

Now I will turn somewhat messianic. Despite all the well-known defects of modern, economically developed, democratic Western society, I firmly believe that it still offers the individual human the best opportunity for a peaceful, self-fulfilling life.

Translated into today's world this means that Southeastern Europe should be helped to integrate with Western Europe.

In other words, the Balkans should choose to emulate the good side of twentieth-century European history --the European Union and NATO --not the horrific side of two world wars and the Holocaust.

How do we get from here to there?

First, as the military would say, we must control the environment. This means stabilizing the situation on the ground by disarming the rival armies, militias, and individual civilians. Even while this is occurring, shelter must be provided for more than one million returning displaced persons and refugees.

The international community must then set up a rational system of civilian governance. In Bosnia only now --three-and-a-half years after Dayton--are the governmental institutions finally beginning to work, and there is still much room for improvement.

In Kosovo, as I mentioned, the international community should assume the initial governing burden to give the province breathing space before provincial institutions are created and elections held. This de facto international trusteeship makes imperative the immediate clarification of the division of labor among KFOR, the U.N., the EU, and OSCE, and non-governmental organizations.

During the trusteeship period, every effort must be made to involve all parties within the ethnic Albanian community --from Rugova to the KLA, the remaining Kosovo Serbs, and other minority groups in the beginnings of local governance. The first results of such efforts have not been promising.

Then, we must chart a strategic roadmap for the civil and economic reconstruction of the entire region, not individual countries. I believe that a sine qua non for any regional effort to succeed is a democratic government in Serbia on good relations with its neighbors. Translated into policy that means that we should make every effort to assist the contentious Serbian opposition to topple Slobodan Milosevic. I cannot tell you when and how Milosevic will fall, but I am confident that he will not be in power a year from now.

It goes without saying that while Milosevic struggles to hold onto power, and fails, reconstruction planning must go forward. The infrastructure must be developed on a regional basis with integrated telecommunications systems, trans-Balkan superhighways, new high-speed rail links, and, as economic development progresses, non-stop air links between Balkan countries. Today, for example, in order to fly from Bucharest to Zagreb one must go through Vienna, and the same is true for most other intra-Balkan air routes.

The Stability Pact to be led by the European Union offers the best opportunity for creating this strategic roadmap. The July 30th Stability Pact Summit meeting in Sarajevo, an idea of President Clinton, is exactly what we should be doing.

An important side-benefit of this process is that the Stability Pact can give us the leverage to force antagonists within individual countries, and in neighboring countries, to cooperate. In doing this we would be following the example of the Marshall Plan, which made cooperation among West European states as a precondition for assistance.

Two days ago the EU foreign ministers agreed in principle to choose Thessaloniki, Greece as the reconstruction center for the Balkans. I would like to make a counter-proposal for immediate action.

The Balkans comprise a large, diverse geographical area. Therefore, after its July 30th summit, I urge the Stability Pact --of which, I would remind our EU friends, the United States will be an important member --to locate a significant regional headquarters in Sarajevo, a move which would greatly enhance the prestige of the Bosnian national government, help the Bosnian economy, and exert pressure for more rapid implementation of the Dayton Accords.

Within a few years I hope, and expect, to see a Southeastern European free trade area, including a democratic Serbia, with preferential access for its exports to the European Union and the United States.

Thereafter, with EU assistance the countries of this regional common market would move into the euro zone for their common currency.

The Southeastern European free trade area would, sooner rather than later, become part of the EU's free trade zone, with agricultural products phased in over several years.

Meanwhile, the process of accelerated membership in the EU for individual Southeastern European countries would continue. Slovenia and Hungary are already well on the way toward full membership in the first half of the next decade. Bulgaria and Romania could follow relatively soon thereafter.

The only logical way to cement the security structure of the region is through NATO membership for countries that meet the detailed requirements.

Slovenia already is fully qualified and should be invited as soon as possible as a sign that South Slavs are not congenitally incapable of joining the club.

President Clinton in his recent speech in Ljubljana said as much by praising Slovenia as a model for the region.

Romania may also be ready to join NATO in the very near future if it gets its troubled economy back on track.

Bulgaria, with a democratic and free-market government, must clamp down on serious corruption. If it succeeds in doing this, and continues fulfilling its membership action plan, it too could qualify for NATO.

Croatia, after Slovenia the most western of the former Yugoslav republics, has been hampered by Franjo Tudjman's authoritarian style of rule and his often mischievous policies in Bosnia. Upcoming parliamentary elections offer the promise of a fundamental change in Croatian domestic and foreign policy, which could enable it to join the Partnership for Peace and dramatically enhance its chances for NATO and EU membership.

Am I certain that my vision is possible? No, I'm not. But I am reasonably confident that there is a decent chance it can be implemented. I stress that there must be a domestic U.S. consensus in order for us to devote the necessary human and material resources to the task.

Many Senators and Representatives shrink back from such a commitment, either because of neo-isolationist ideology, or because they see more important issues demanding priority such as preventing nuclear proliferation, dealing with a crumbling Russia, handling relations with a resurgent, yet brittle China, and coping with rogue states and international terrorism.



How to calibrate the resource allocation among all these valid issues is essentially where it's at in twenty-first century American foreign policy.

I don't pretend to have a simple answer.

But I do think that the inter-agency study I recommended is a necessary first step toward finding an answer.

The Woodrow Wilson Center and this distinguished audience are accustomed to thinking ahead in big terms, and I would welcome your suggestions as we enter the new millennium.

Thank you for your attention.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant