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U.S. Participation in IFOR: A Marathon, not a Sprint

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen.

June 20, 1996

49 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The U.S. decision to join the Implementation Force (IFOR) for the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Hercegovina (familiarly known as the Dayton Accords) marked a crucial milestone toward achieving the U.S. national objective of a lasting political settlement to the conflict in Bosnia. Equally critical will be determining whether the United States will continue participating in IFOR beyond the currently established 12-month deadline.

Decisions of great import rarely entail simple cause and effect judgments. Thinking through the likely second and third order consequences of contemplated actions often defines success or failure as much as dealing with the issue of the moment. Such is the case for U.S. policy in Bosnia. In examining what form U.S. involvement in IFOR beyond the current deadline will take, we should recall that, while events inside Bosnia influenced the introduction of U.S. ground troops, wider U.S. interests in the Balkans, in Europe, and throughout the world proved more pivotal in the decision-making calculus. Likewise, a decision on whether to withdraw from or to extend IFOR also must encompass a similarly broad geo-strategic context. To that end, Dr. William Johnsen examines in this monograph the potential for creating suitable conditions for a lasting political settlement in Bosnia by December 1996, identifies possible outcomes of a U.S. withdrawal from IFOR, and assesses potential consequences for U.S. national objectives and interests within the Balkans, and beyond.

Dr. Johnsen's conclusions will not sit well with most in the United States and abroad who are weary of the Bosnian "problem" and would like to see it "wrapped up" by December. That it appears intractable on the civil side despite IFOR's quieting of the guns heightens the frustration.


Notwithstanding the cogent reasons behind the current December 1996 deadline for withdrawing U.S. ground forces from Bosnia, that policy must be reexamined in light of existing strategic conditions. A decision on whether to extend participation in the IFOR or to join in a successor organization will be neither easy nor insignificant. Nonetheless, it will have to be made, and in the not too distant future. Now, therefore, is the time to examine the issues that will determine whether the United States will continue to lead efforts to ensure a lasting political settlement in Bosnia.

While NATO forces and their partners in IFOR have played a critical and successful role in halting conflict in Bosnia and bringing stability to the region, military success in the short term does not necessarily lead to a long-term political settlement. Such a resolution depends primarily on resolving internal political, economic, and societal issues within Bosnia- Hercegovina. That having been said, establishing those conditions will depend to a significant degree on the ability of an outside military presence to sustain conditions that support the other elements of the process.

IFOR has created the basis for a secure environment, but that foundation is fragile, and much remains to be accomplished: arbitrate control of Brcko, resettle refugees, build political institutions, hold elections, restore the Bosnian economy, negotiate and implement arms control and confidence-building regimes, and implement the U.S. equip and train program. Whether this complex and demanding agenda can be completed prior to December 1996 is questionable.

If IFOR withdraws before conditions for a lasting political settlement are established, three general outcomes are possible: peaceful resolution, limited violence, and a return to war. Only a peaceful resolution is in U.S. national interests, but it is the least likely result. Indeed, if prevailing conditions are not sustained, the current hiatus in Bosnia-Hercegovina may represent little more than an operational pause before the factions resume fighting.

While damage to U.S. objectives in Bosnia from renewed conflict could be considerable, much more is at stake. NATO's credibility could be irrevocably damaged, and U.S. leadership in the Alliance could be called into question. Surrendering leadership in the Bosnian crisis also may be construed as another example of U.S. disengagement from Europe, leading perhaps to reduced European public support of NATO or a U.S. presence in Europe. Concomitantly, a perceived failure may diminish U.S. public support of NATO, of a U.S. forward military presence in Europe, or for substantial U.S. engagement in international affairs, leading to an inward-looking and unilateralist U.S. attitude that further constrains U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, potential opponents may be emboldened to challenge the United States. The cumulative effect of these issues may result in a downward spiral of U.S. influence abroad.

These conclusions argue for a continued outside military presence to enforce the provisions of the Dayton Agreement. But the United States and NATO continue to adhere publicly to roughly a one-year time limit for IFOR's deployment. When examining potential options for a follow-on organization to oversee further implementation of the Dayton Agreement (e.g., U.N. Protection Force ("UNPROFOR II") or a coalition of European states under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the Western European Union (WEU)), only a credible NATO-led force with a substantial U.S. ground component offers a significant likelihood of success.

The United States, therefore, cannot simply engage for 12 months and then withdraw from Bosnia. How long U.S. military forces should assist in implementing the peace agreement cannot be answered with certainty at this point. But one year will not be sufficient to establish the requisite conditions for a longterm political settlement. Instead, U.S. forces should be prepared to remain in IFOR or its successor until such time that U.S. national objectives are achieved or have been adapted to changed strategic conditions.

The time has come to examine whether the United States will continue to lead efforts to ensure a long-term political settlement in Bosnia that will further contribute to U.S. national objectives in Europe and globally. During these deliberations, participants must keep in mind that achieving U.S. objectives in Bosnia is more akin to running a marathon than a sprint. And, like a successful marathon runner, the United States must demonstrate determination, endurance, and the ability to withstand temporary pain.Just as Finland wants Russia integrated into as many European channels as possible, so, too, does it want the Baltic states equally enmeshed in those European networks as a means of preserving regional peace in the Baltic. To the degree that Baltic security issues are internationalized, peace remains secure, everyone is consulted, and the Baltic states are not left face to face with Russia.

Obviously not everyone will appreciate Finnish goals and perspectives which contradict the vision of the WEU as a "European pillar" that provides for Europe's defense as distinct from NATO. Nonetheless, Finland's policy and vision combines self-defense, a nonprovocative policy that sponsors Russia's integration into Europe, and Finland's own integration with Europe into a cohesive whole. For small states which must operate in the shadow of a status quo set by others and where subregional organizations cannot provide defense against potential threats, Finland might well become a model of how to proceed in building individual, regional, and even European security.

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