Remarks by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry
100th Landon Lecture Series
"U.S. Choices in Bosnia"
Kansas State University
Thursday, March 9, 1995
Secretary Perry: Thank you.
Life is about choices. The playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, "Where choice
begins, Paradise ends, innocence ends, for what is Paradise, but the absence of
the need to choose."
You as individuals make choices every day, and you will live with the
consequences of these choices -- good or bad. Nations also make choices.
Those choices are not as easily altered as those made by individuals. The
consequences are far greater, the prices far higher.
Today, America faces distinct and very difficult choices regarding its policy
in Bosnia -- a place where paradise and innocence ended long ago. These
choices are being actively debated in Washington. However, much of the debate
on policy alternatives is taking place without an informed consideration of the
consequences of these alternatives. The choice of a particular policy
alternatives leads us inexorably down a path, driven by an iron logic from
consequence to consequence. A major part of my job is to consider and to
prepare for the defense consequences of the choices we make among the
alternative security policies. Today I would like to discuss these with you.
Bosnia may very well be the toughest security policy issue we face today.
Under Tito, it was said that Yugoslavia consisted of seven neighbors, six
republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, and
one country. Even if Yugoslavia ever was one country, today it certainly is
not. Over the past four years, Yugoslavia has completely disintegrated. The
collapse of Yugoslavia left Bosnia as an independent state for the first time
in its history. But Bosnia was not only a new state, it was a very unstable
state. It included Muslims, Croats, and Serbs -- three rival ethnic groups.
Bosnia's tradition of pluralism was shattered when the Serbs, who were the
dominant ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia, now found themselves as the
minority ethnic group in the newly independent Bosnia.
The Serbs were a minority, but they were a heavily armed minority. So in 1992
the Serbs in Bosnia decided to take advantage of their military superiority and
began making war on the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Muslims who
controlled the government. This has been called a civil war, but it is also a
war of aggression, since the Bosnian Serbs have been supported by their ethnic
cousins in Serbia.
I am not agnostic about who the victims are in this war. The Bosnian
Government and its supporters are the victims. The atrocities that are
perpetrated by the Serbs, in particular the "ethnic cleansing," are
Our government and the international community support the Bosnian Government.
We have formally recognized the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sovereign
Serbia, on the other hand, is the subject of an international economic embargo
and political censure for Serb actions in Bosnia. Currently, the Bosnian Serbs
control about 70 percent of the territory in Bosnia. The United States, Great
Britain, France, Germany and Russia have put a proposal on the table that
preserves a unified state and gives the Serbs 49 percent of the land of Bosnia,
and leaves the Bosnian Muslims and Croats in control of the other 51 percent.
That proposal was rejected by the Serbs.
As a consequence, I do not see the prospect of a near-term political
Many people, while sympathizing with the Bosnian Muslims, find the situation
too confusing, too complicated and too frustrating. Some are even tempted to
throw up their hands. They say that Bosnia is a tragedy, but not our tragedy.
They say that we should wash our hands of the whole situation and walk away.
This view is not only questionable from a moral standpoint, it is also
flat-out wrong from a national security standpoint. It is true that we do not
have what I call "vital" national security interests in Bosnia. That is to
say, the survival of the United States is not threatened by actions in Bosnia.
But we do have a security interest in preventing the violence from spreading
and from stimulating a broader European war. We do have a security interest in
limiting the violence. And we certainly have a humanitarian interest in
mitigating the violence. In my view, walking away is not an option.
What are the options? Stripped to their essence, we have essentially two
choices. Choice A is to stick with our current policy of limiting the threat
of the war and its impact on people while we are working for peace. Choice B
is to begin actively helping the Bosnian Government achieve its political and
its military goals.
Under Choice A, we are working to limit the spread of the conflict beyond
Bosnia's borders. To that end, we have U.S. troops participating in the United
Nations force in Macedonia. We are limiting the violence and the casualties by
enforcing a No-Fly Zone over Bosnia, and by enforcing zones around urban
centers where heavy weapons are excluded. We are mitigating the effects of the
violence by airlifting food and medical supplies to civilian populations.
Finally, we are participating in diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated
settlement based on the plan that the multinational group has put forward.
We have had significant success with the first three of these actions. Before
NATO began enforcing a No-Fly Zone, Bosnian cities were being bombed, with
many, many casualties. Before we established a heavy weapons exclusion zone
around Sarajevo, there were bombardments going on of that city, including
artillery bombardments, sometimes of a thousand shells a day. In Sarajevo
alone, there were 10,000 civilian casualties that resulted from this
bombardment. So our efforts have saved thousands of lives; and thousands more
have been saved by the delivery of food and medicine.
Fourteen nations are contributing over 12,000 United Nation troops to protect
enclaves, deliver supplies, and to serve as buffers between the factions. Six
nations, including the United States, are participating in a NATO air operation
which enforces the No-Fly Zone and the weapons exclusion zone, and which
delivers humanitarian supplies.
These efforts have been very well executed and have done real good, but we
have not succeeded in the fourth goal -- achieving a peace settlement. People
find this frustrating. I find it frustrating. Many are further frustrated
that our policies have not assisted the Bosnian people in their struggle to
reverse the Serb gains and to punish those who participated in "ethnic
cleansing." These people support what I call Choice B, taking active measures
to help the Bosnian Government achieve its political and military goal.
My thesis today is that the active measures which have been proposed for that
purpose send the United States headlong down a slippery slope. At the bottom
of that slope will be American troops in ground combat; will be a humanitarian
catastrophe; will be a wider war; or perhaps all three together.
Nearly everyone accepts that sending American troops for ground combat in
Bosnia is a non-starter. There is no support for this idea among the public or
in Congress. American casualties undoubtedly would be high -- far higher than
anyone could justify based on our interests. Consequently, even critics of our
present policy do not propose sending American ground troops to help the
Bosnian Government win the war. Ironically, many of those same people have
other ideas on how to help Bosnia which could very well lead to the same
One suggestion is that America conduct air strikes to help Bosnian military
forces. But no responsible military commander believes we can change the
outcome of the war with an air campaign alone. Bosnia is not Iraq. Bosnia is
wooded, mountainous, and often blanketed by clouds. The Serbs spread out their
weapons over a wide area and often place them in the middle of population
centers. These factors combine to make it unlikely that air power by itself
can be effective in stopping the Serbs. In order for an air campaign to be
even partially effective, our pilots would need the assistance of trained,
ground-based, forward observers to help coordinate their strikes. So we would
have the prospect of captured pilots, of casualties on the ground among the
observers, and of very heavy civilian casualties -- including casualties among
the population we are trying to help.
Another suggested way to help the Bosnian Government cause, and a course which
has been popular with many members of Congress, is for the United States to
unilaterally lift the arms embargo which is now on the Bosnian Government. The
arms embargo went into effect in 1991 and it applies to all of the states of
the former Yugoslavia. Its purpose, of course, is to limit the destructive
power of all combatants in the region. However, because the Serbs inherited
most of the weapons of Tito's Yugoslav armed forces, the embargo froze in place
a military imbalance. The Bosnian Government has no such inheritance and has
been up against a much stronger Serb force with a significant advantage in
tanks and other heavy weapons. Proponents of unilaterally lifting the embargo
as it applies to the Bosnian Government say they want at least to make it a
fair fight. That's a strong moral argument.
This course has been called "lift and leave." Its proponents like it because
they believe this course is virtually risk-free for the United States -- that
it does not put American soldiers, sailors, and airmen in harm's way. Thus,
this course appears to satisfy our urge to "do something about Bosnia" at no
cost to America. These proponents also make the point that by leveling the
battlefield, pressure will be brought on the Serbs to agree to a just peace.
These results are clearly desirable, but what is the likelihood that a
unilateral lift without more U.S. involvement would achieve those results?
More critical observers of this course call it "lift and pray" because it is a
dangerously flawed proposition. If one follows this course step by step to its
logical conclusion, it also leads to U.S. ground troops fighting in Bosnia the very situation the proponents say they are trying to avoid.
Simply authorizing U.S. manufacturers to sell arms to Bosnia will not, in and
of itself, level the battlefield. To truly level the battlefield, to equalize
the two warring forces, will take a major commitment to ensure that the arms
reach Bosnia. Since the Bosnians do not have the financial resources, either
the U.S. or a third party would have to supply the funds.
Should the U.S. assume this responsibility, the financial costs are
substantial, but would be the least of our problems.
We would also need to get the arms into the hands of the Bosnians. The
Bosnians do not have a navy or an air force capable of coming and getting the
weapons. So proponents of lifting the embargo must also assume that the United
States would be responsible for delivering the weapons. Sea and land delivery
would require cooperation from a third party -- Croatia -- which has its own
interests at stake and may not cooperate. All airfields in Bosnia are within
range of Bosnian-Serb artillery, so all arriving aircraft would be subject to
ground fire. Realistically, then, we could expect American casualties even in
the delivery of these supplies.
As we delivered these supplies, we would be in the extremely awkward position
of defying the other NATO nations with forces operating the same area who are
enforcing the arms embargo against all of the states of the former Yugoslavia.
Are American ships and planes supposed to evade and elude the ships and planes
of our NATO allies with whom we worked these past four years trying to enforce
Let me assume that we could find a relatively safe way to deliver arms to the
Bosnian Government. We'd then have to deal with the question of training the
Bosnian soldiers to use these weapons. The Bosnians don't just need rifles or
grenades, they need sophisticated arms to counter the Serbian advantage in
heavy weapons. Using such arms takes training. We know from our own
experience that it is not just arms, but training in their use that makes a
force effective. So we will also have to consider using American soldiers to
train the Bosnian forces.
Assuming that we can solve the arms financing, delivery, and training
questions, we face a different set of issues that evolve around this question:
How would the Serbs react to the prospect of arms on their way to Bosnia? What
if they launched preemptive strikes to gain a military victory on the ground
before the arms shipment arrived? In particular, what if the Serbs attacked
the isolated UN protected enclaves in Bosnia? This would result in tens of
thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
If our decision to lift the embargo results in Serbs overrunning the enclaves
and massive civilian casualties, what do we do? What is our responsibility at
that point? We would face a difficult moral and political dilemma, and an even
more difficult military problem. From a moral and political standpoint, there
would be enormous pressure on us to retaliate in some way to stop this carnage,
but militarily, that would not be easy. Air strikes could punish the Serbs,
but they could not change the outcome or stop the killing. Indeed, it would
only expand the violence.
That brings us to yet another set of problems. Even if we resisted the
pressure to do something and instead simply watched the enclaves being overrun,
we would still have to deal with the inevitable evacuation of the UN
peacekeeping forces. Key countries contributing peacekeepers have already
firmly stated that they will not keep them in Bosnia if the United States lifts
the embargo. That means humanitarian relief will stop flowing, and we would
have to decide whether to take over the protection of relief operations now
being done by the UN or simply stand by and watch people starve.
In addition, if it's decided that UN forces have to evacuate Bosnia, we are
committed, in principle, to participating in a NATO operation to help get them
out, subject to consultation with the Congress. To do this operation properly,
NATO and the U.S. will have to send in substantial numbers of ground combat
forces, the very situation we are trying to avoid. While it's possible that an
evacuation of UN forces from Bosnia may become necessary down the road no
matter what we do, unilaterally lifting the embargo will make that evacuation a
certainty -- not just a possibility.
Unilateral lift would also undermine our most important security objective in
the region, which is to prevent the conflict from spreading to other parts of
the former Yugoslavia, possibly leading to a much wider war in the Balkins.
In sum, unilateral lift could lead to a humanitarian disaster, it could lead
to American ground troops in Bosnia, and it could lead to a wider war, or it
could lead to all three of those. If the arms embargo is to be lifted, it must
be done in a multilateral way because only by involving the international
community generally on the side of the Bosnians can we avoid many, but not all,
of the problems of unilateral lift.
In short, unilateral lift is not an alternative to intervention with ground
troops, it is merely another means of reaching that same result. It is an
attempt to influence the war on the cheap. It is a policy that does not help
the people of Bosnia and does not advance America's interests in the Balkans.
In addition, unilateral lift is detrimental to America's interest in a wider
sphere. Without question, it would drive a wedge between the United States and
the rest of the NATO alliance -- a wedge deeper than any in NATO's history.
Taken as a whole, these are disastrous and unacceptable consequences which
bring me back to Choice A -- continuing with our present policy: trying to
contain the conflict, limiting the violence and its effects, and supporting
negotiations to a peaceful settlement.
While we can reasonably expect this policy to continue to be successful in
preventing the spread of the war, and to continue to be successful in limiting
both the fighting and its effects, I confess that this policy gives me no great
moral satisfaction because it does not give America much leverage on
influencing a peace settlement. Our approach has been to facilitate the
parties in reaching that settlement, recognizing that we do not have enough
leverage to force a settlement. To force a peace on the combatants, we would
have to be willing to fight a war, and that is an unacceptable level of
Bosnia is a tragedy which will end only when the parties themselves conclude
that their interests are served better by a negotiated settlement than by
continuing the war. We understand that this may take some time. That is why
we are committed to those actions which lower the level of violence and
mitigate the suffering while these peace talks continue.
I am fully aware of the shortcomings of our present approach, but there are no
good options in Bosnia. We must be very wary of the siren call coming from
those who say that there are easy and painless ways for America to do something
about Bosnia. There are many ways we can do something -- none of them turn out
to be easy. None of them turn out to be painless.
I began by talking about choices and consequences. Let me end by returning to
this theme. Political life offers many opportunities for posturing, for
pretending there are simple solutions to complex problems. Bosnia as a policy
issue is not difficult. It is painful, but it's not difficult. When you look
carefully at the consequences, it is easy to make a choice between our two
John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "Politics is not the art of the possible.
[Rather,] [i]t consists of choosing between the disastrous and the
Our present course in Bosnia has been called unpalatable, but the alternative
-- unilaterally lifting the embargo -- would prove to be disastrous. It's a
course of action which might make us feel good today, but result in the
pointless spilling of American blood tomorrow.
I have shared with you today the consequences of alternative policy options in
Bosnia. The truth, as I said, is unpalatable. It is, nonetheless, important
to understand the truth. During the Second World War Winston Churchill once
said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and
hurry away without being affected by it."
I have tried today to make you stumble over the truth about Bosnia, and I hope
that you will be affected by it. Thank you.